Efforts To Curb Teenage Drinking Said To Fall Short

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WASHINGTON--Surgeon General Antonia C. Novello gave the nation a "mediocre'' grade on solving its teenage-drinking problem in a "report card'' on the topic released at a press conference here last week.

"Bluntly put, our efforts to reduce underage drinking, though phenomenal in some cases, in general are mediocre,'' said Dr. Novello.

Easy access to alcohol, misleading advertising, and parental neglect have contributed to what Dr. Novello called "possibly one of the most significant public-health challenges we face today.''

Of the 20 million 7th- to 12-graders in the United States, half of them drink, 8 million drink weekly, and nearly a half-million "binge'' drink, according to a 1992 survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Nearly 19 percent of 15- to 17-year olds who died in automobile crashes in 1989 had alcohol in their systems, according to the National Highway Safety Administration.

Other consequences of underage drinking include truancies, thefts, school dropouts, vandalism, and accidental death, Dr. Novello added.

While she noted that a recent study showed that binge drinking among high school seniors decreased from 40 percent in the early 1980's to 29 percent last year, she argued that younger teenagers are not responding to health warnings. In the same study, 26 percent of 8th graders were drinkers, and 14 percent reported binging in the previous two weeks, both slight increases over 1991.

Education Called Key

One of the first remedies must be enforcement, Dr. Novello said. Although the national drinking age is 21, "at any one time across the country, 7 million students are able to walk into a store and buy alcohol,'' because of exceptions in state laws, she said. Eliminating false identification cards and increasing vendor awareness of the drinking-age requirement are needed to restrict underage access, she said.

Dr. Novello chastised beer companies, in particular, saying that they make the required health warnings on their labels difficult to read and continue to produce advertisements that downplay health hazards.

She gave "high marks'' to the Education Department for informing the public about the "dangerous consequences'' of alcohol, but added that "this country is in need of Alcohol Education 101 from town halls to Congress'' to develop solutions to teenage consumption.

She hailed efforts to mandate parental attendance at alcohol-education classes for any infraction committed by their children.

"We cannot wait to educate our young people until high school,'' Dr. Novello said. "We must start in the home and as early as the preschools.''

Vol. 12, Issue 32

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