Jewish World Review March 12, 2002 / 28 Adar, 5762
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Nothing spurs government to action more than a crisis, and nothing suggests a crisis more than a dose of junk science. So it is with "America's Underage Drinking Epidemic," as proclaimed by the National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia.
With great fanfare, CASA announced that underage drinkers consume a quarter of all alcohol in the U.S., "a problem of epidemic proportion." This leads to a host of problems costing $53 billion a year: "alcohol-related traffic accidents, violent crime, burns, drowning, suicide attempts, alcohol poisonings, fetal alcohol syndrome and treatment for alcohol abuse."
CASA's president, Joseph Califano, called for "national mobilization to curb underage drinking." To do so he would target the adult market: prohibit sales in public places, limit alcohol outlets, restrict home delivery, ban alcohol sponsorship of athletic leagues, prohibit advertising, increase alcohol taxes, require warning labels, force the industry to fund critical ads and expand the Office of National Drug Control Policy to alcohol. Indeed, there is little that he would not try. Perhaps banning kids from establishments, such as restaurants, which sell alcohol. Perhaps targeting parents, legal guardians, and spouses who serve those under 21.
Califano's agenda would be suspect even if his facts were right. But they aren't. The claim that minors account for a quarter of all alcohol consumption isn't plausible. By one estimate, 12- to 20-year- olds would have to be averaging two drinks a day.
CASA cites the government's National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. However, the survey over-samples 12- to 20-year olds, who make up 38 percent of those polled, but only 15 percent of the population. CASA ignored this fact.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that underage drinking actually accounts for 11.4 percent of total alcohol consumption. And much of that reflects responsible use by young adults, from 18 to 20. Not that the facts matter to Califano, who responded to criticism by claiming that the federal survey was flawed: "There's a tremendous underestimate in reporting."
CASA put out a statement contending that the real rate of underage drinking was probably "30 percent or more." If guesses qualify as research, CASA shouldn't bother looking at the federal data. Why not rely on tarot cards or chicken gizzards instead? Alas, CASA has long been noted for its scare-mongering. Eight years ago, the organization released a similar report, warning of binge drinking, and "death, violence, rape, and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases" in its wake. Here, too, drinking was seen as reaching "epidemic proportions."
In an analysis of that study, Forbes media critic senior editor Kathy McNamara-Meis found that statistics were old, "not credible," or simply "pulled from thin air." When Califano responded, she discovered that "many of Califano's summaries are inaccurate and some grossly distort my reporting."
Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala said that CASA had misstated government statistics. State University of New York (Potsdam) professor David Hanson observed that "If I were teaching a research class, I would use this CASA report as an example of what not to do."
CASA's scare-mongering is particularly curious since college drinking rates have been falling for two decades. In fact, college drinking is at an all-time low, down 7 percent over the last decade. Drinking by high school students and binge drinking also have fallen.
The group's work is obviously driven by the prohibitionist agenda of Califano, Jimmy Carter's secretary of health, education, and welfare. The report fails to distinguish between use and abuse: "Individuals who do not drink before age 21 are virtually certain never to do so." Is that good? Alcohol use generates benefits as well as costs.
The report pours special scorn on parents who "tend to see drinking and occasional bingeing as a right of passage, rather than a deadly round of Russian roulette. Home -- a child's or a child's friend's -- is a major source of alcohol for children, especially for younger children." Less than a quarter of parents prohibit their children from using until age 21.
Yet the experience of foreign countries suggests that kids who learn to drink at home are less likely to be problem users.
Particularly dubious is forbidding 18- to 20-year-olds to drink.
Many of these legal adults, who can vote, conclude contracts, be drafted, and smoke, will be unprepared for potentially dangerous experimentation in college. There is a marked difference between a 12-year-old and a 20-year-old drinking, and the latter doing so with responsible adults or college fraternity buddies.
Like most things in life, alcohol can be abused. But abuse is best discouraged by teaching people to drink responsibly. Which, sadly, CASA's inaccurate scare-mongering makes more
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