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Teenage wasteland: Prohibition was repealed 70 years ago, but the mind-set he behind it lingers on. (Rant).

IN FEBRUARY, COLUMBIA University's Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) released the policy wonk equivalent of a Girls Gone Wild spring break video. Teen Tipplers: America's Underage Drinking Epidemic promised a salacious expose of youth gone very, very bad. The most ballyhooed factoid in the widely covered report, available online at www.casacolumbia.org, certainly seemed to deliver the goods; CASA declared that zit-faced lushes between the ages of 12 and 20 consume a whopping 25 percent of all alcohol sold in this sweet land of libertines.

"Drinking is teen America's fatal attraction....a deadly round of Russian roulette," claimed CASA's head honcho, Joseph A. Califano Jr., in the casually apocalyptic and cliche-ridden phraseology favored by our public policy puritans. You only had to wonder how he restrained himself from denouncing teens and booze as the most terrifying twosome since Frankenstein met the Wolf Man.

There was just one problem with Teen Tripplers' headline-grabbing finding: It was about as legit as Jenna Bush's ID card. How CASA and its journalistic designated driver, The New York Times, handled the screw up reveals a lot about America's ongoing war between wets and drys. Although Prohibition was repealed almost 70 years ago, the prohibitionist mind-set was not. It's alive and well, and looking to turn any drop of liquor into a sign of pathology.

The day after Teen Tipplers hit the news, CASA grudgingly admitted that the proper estimate for the underage share of alcohol consumption is 11.4 percent, not 25 percent. The group's mistake stemmed from a failure to adjust for over sampling of younger drinkers in the federal government's National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. Caught in an obvious and undeniable mathematical mistake, CASA argued like a late-night drunk that really, man, no, really, man, it was still absolutely right in its original conclusion.

"It's very unfortunate," CASA's vice president and director of policy research, Sue Foster, told the Times. "We didn't reweight the data. But we think the 11.4 percent number is way too low, since there's so much underreporting."

The Times headlined its February 27 story containing the above quote "Disturbing Finding on Young Drinkers Proves to Be Wrong." Did it ever. Reporter Tamar Lewin further noted that "alcohol consumption by teenagers dropped sharply in the 1980's , when stated raised the drinking age to 21 from 18." There's more: "The proportion of teenagers who engage in binge drinking (i.e. consuming five or more drinks on a single occasion] has declined....In 1998, 6.6 percent of girls and 8.7 percent of boys 12 to 17 reported binge drinking, compared with 11 percent of the girls and nearly 19 percent of the boys a decade earlier."

Here's the crazed part; Despite such sober trends, the Times piece quickly turned into a sermon. The really bad news, it turns out, is that the historical gender gap in teen drinking has all but disappeared, with 41 percent of girls and 40 percent of boys reporting that they drank alcohol in the previous month.

The last quarter of Lewin's article is about "Natalie, 17, a senior at a Brooklyn private school who attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings." Natalie, we learn, was hitting the sauce like Betty Ford by age 14. She bottomed out "drinking gin out of a McDonlad's coffee cup [as] a homeless man who had overdosed on heroin died right in front of her." And hey kids, in case you miss the moral of all this, Natalie declares, "I don't want to drink ever again; I know where drinking takes me, and it's not pretty."

It sure isn't. Neither is a "widely respected antidrinking organization" (the Times' antidrinking (the Times' description of CASA) that can't add or simply admit when it has wildly overstated its case. Or a paper of record that ends a story about the mistake with an over-the-top Gin Lane set piece about the evils of drink.

Nick Gillespie (Gillespie@reason.com) is editor-in-chief of reason.
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Author:Gillespie, Nick
Publication:Reason
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2002
Words:662
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