Student Well-Being

Report Calls On Nation to Tackle Teenage Alcohol Abuse

By Darcia Harris Bowman — September 17, 2003 3 min read
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The federal government should step up efforts to curb underage consumption of alcohol by launching a multimillion-dollar national media campaign, raising excise taxes on alcoholic beverages, and paying for proven alcohol-education programs in schools.

“Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility” is available online from The National Academies Press.

Those are just a few of the recommendations contained in a sweeping, 300-page report on the nation’s underage-drinking problem released last week by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine. They are arms of the congressionally chartered National Academies of science, engineering, and medicine.

The study, requested by Congress, also calls for stronger rules to shield youngsters under the legal drinking age of 21 from images and messages contained in advertising, movies, television, and music that promote or glamorize the use of alcohol.

More than a quarter of all high school students consumed five or more alcoholic drinks in a row in the two weeks preceding a 2002 federal survey, according to the report. The authors also say that the social cost of illegal drinking has been estimated at $53 billion a year—including $19 billion from traffic accidents alone—and that more of the nation’s youths drink alcohol than smoke tobacco or use any illicit drug.

Despite such statistics, the problem garners little attention as a public- health threat, one of the report’s authors said during a telephone press conference last week.

“Although the general public is generally aware of the problems associated with underage drinking, the nation’s social response has not been commensurate with the magnitude and seriousness of the problem,” said Richard J. Bonnie, the chairman of the committee that produced the report and the director of the University of Virginia’s Institute of Law, Psychiatry, and Public Policy, located in Charlottesville.

“This disparity is evident not only in the fact that the federal government spends 25 times more on preventing illegal drug use by young people than on preventing underage drinking, but also in the lack of sustained and comprehensive grassroots efforts to address the problem in most communities,” he said.

‘Woefully Misguided’

The report drew instant criticism from the alcoholic- beverage industry, particularly for its proposals to increase government monitoring of the industry’s practices and raise taxes on its products.

“At a time when both federal and state governments are looking for ways to eliminate bureaucracy and balance budgets, the report’s call for the creation of a new federal interagency coordinating committee, a national training and research center, new federal annual reporting requirements, the establishment of a new external-review panel, and additional congressional funding, is woefully misguided,” said Jeff Becker, the president of the Beer Institute, a national trade association based in Washington, in a statement to the press.

But other groups praised the report as a comprehensive strategy that rightly called on beer and liquor producers to contribute financially and otherwise to the goal of reducing youngsters’ access to and interest in alcohol.

“The alcohol industry needs to show responsibility and limit underage youth exposure to its advertising,” Jim O’Hara, the executive director of the Washington-based Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, said in a statement following the report’s release. “The public should have access to information about the industry’s advertising practices and underage youth so they can hold the industry accountable.”

A chief recommendation in the report is the creation of a multimedia campaign, particularly one that would be aimed at adults. “Most adults express concern about this behavior and voice support for public policies to curb it,” Mr. Bonnie said. “Yet behind the concern lies a paradox: Youth often get their alcohol from adults.”

The report also recommends school-based approaches designed to prevent substance abuse among students, but cautions that such programs “vary widely in their ability to effect alcohol-related outcomes.”

According to the report, “programs relying on provision of information alone, fear tactics, or messages about not drinking until one is ‘old enough’ have consistently been found to be ineffective in reducing alcohol use and, in some cases, produce boomerang effects.”

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