Teenage-Drinking Study Spurs Questions On Efficacy of Drug-Prevention Efforts

By Ellen Flax — June 19, 1991 4 min read

A federal study that shows that adolescents drink staggering amounts of beer, wine coolers, and fortified wines has led some observers to question whether anti-drug programs pay sufficient attention to teenage drinking.

The study, released this month by the Department of Health and Human Services, estimates that 8 million, or about 40 percent, of junior- and senior-high school students drink weekly, and together consume approximately 35 percent of all the wine coolers sold in the country.

More than 3 million students say they drink alone, more than 4 million drink when they are upset, and nearly 3 million drink because they are bored, the study found.

“Many of these kids are already alcoholics,” said U.S. Surgeon General Antonia Novella as she released the report. “The rest may well be on their way.”

“The study shows that we are not properly educating our youth about the harmful effects of alcohol,” Dr. Novella said. “Less than half of all teenagers get information from their families, and only about a quarter of them cited school, a class, or a specific program about alcohol as a source of information.”

The findings, which are based on self-reports in a survey of 956 students in grades 7 through 12 in eight states, are consistent with those of other federal studies showing that alcohol is the drug of choice for American adolescents.

For example, this year’s annual survey of the drug-, alcohol-, and tobacco-use patterns of high-school seniors found that nearly one-third of the students in the class of 1990 said they had consumed more than five drinks on a single occasion during the previous two weeks, a figure virtually unchanged from the year before.

In the same survey, 3.7 percent of the seniors said they drank daily, down from 4.2 percent the previous year.

In contrast, about one-tenth of 1 percent of the seniors said they consumed crack or cocaine daily, and 2.2 percent said they smoked mari4juana every day.

Figures like these, including those in the most recent hhs study, have led some to question whether drug-education programs pay enough attention to alcohol.

“We’re not surprised at all, but we’re very disturbed [by the study results],” said Milo Kirk, the national vice president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

“What we’re focusing on is drug education,” she said. “We’re not doing enough on alcohol.”

The debate over whether drug-education programs should emphasize alcohol over other drugs is not new.

The National Commission on Drug-Free Schools’ decision to emphasize alcohol and tobacco in its final report last year ended a yearlong disagreement with the Bush Administration, which had wanted the panel to focus largely on illegal substances. (See Education Week, Nov. 21, 1990.)

The new study estimates that one-half of all the students in the age group surveyed have had at least one drink during the past year. It also found that a number of junior- and senior-high school students are heavy drinkers. More than 5 million students have consumed more than five drinks on a single occasion at least once, the report said. Three million have “binged” within the last month, and 454,000 binge at least once a week, the report concluded.

The study found that teenagers have easy access to alcohol. Despite a national drinking age of 21, about two-thirds of the students who drink buy their own beverages, either by using fake identification cards or by frequenting stores that are known to sell to underage drinkers.

A second hhs study, released at the same time, found that two out of three teenagers cannot distinguish alcoholic beverages from nonalcoholic beverages by their packaging.

Taken together, the two studies recommend that the federal government--including hhs and the U.S. Departments of Education, Transportation, and Justice--work together to develop anti-alcohol programs. These would include educational programs, as well as efforts to prevent teenagers from purchasing alcohol.

The government should also ensure that alcohol advertisements and their packaging are not appealing to adolescents, the reports said.

But making alcohol less appealing to adolescents is a far more difficult task than convincing them that illicit drugs are bad for them, educators said.

“The attitude is certainly more lenient toward alcohol than other drugs,” said Joe Pope, principal of Illahee Junior High School in Federal Way, Wash., shortly after his school and 55 others were cited as winners in the Education Department’s national Drug-Free School Recognition Program at a ceremony at the White House this month.

“The problem with alcohol is the lack of clarity that exists in the minds of adults about underage drinking,” said Lee Dogoloff, the executive director of the American Council for Drug Education.

“Most [drug] curricula that I know of include alcohol,” he said, “but it’s very much an uphill battle without community support. I think the target needs to be parents rather than students.”

William Modzeleski, director of the ed’s drug-abuse prevention oversight staff, said the “strategy needed to reduce underage drinking needs to be different.”

“I think the bottom line is that this is not necessarily just a school problem,” he said. “It becomes very difficult for teachers merely through education processes to reduce alcohol consumption.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 19, 1991 edition of Education Week as Teenage-Drinking Study Spurs Questions On Efficacy of Drug-Prevention Efforts