Surgeon General Urges Action on Underage Drinking
> 3/8/2007 11:12:19 AM

In an official confirmation of a widely recognized issue, Surgeon General Kenneth Moritsugu issued a call to arms regarding underage drinking, calling alcohol the "drug of choice" for teens and urging all corners of society to act toward minimizing the problem. Of the more than 20 million Americans aged 14 to 20, national surveys estimate that nearly 11 million are drinkers and more than 7 million have indulged in at least one episode of binge drinking, or consuming five or more drinks in one occasion. The fact that approximately one in three underaged individuals has resorted to such dangerous abuse of the country's most commonly used drug is disheartening, further illustrating how deeply the problem runs. While teen abuse of tobacco and illicit drugs continues to drop, the same numbers for alcohol remain constant.

One of the indisputed roots of this epidemic is the widely held opinion that drinking in all its forms is a universal "rite of passage" for American adolescents. Widescale revision of such dangerous beliefs is not likely to happen anytime soon, so what can the general public do to curb the national habit? Moritsugu recommends further research, citing "new" evidence that alcohol harms developing brains and that children who begin drinking by the age of fifteen are as much as five times more likely to suffer from alcohol dependency as adults. But these facts are well established. Of course, the human brain is in no way fully formed by the age of 21, and alcohol advocates have long cited studies indicating that the regular consumption of very moderate amounts of alcohol leads to lower rates of dementia and heart disease. This argument, however, sidesteps the issue.

Moritsugu also urges schools and federal and state agencies to initiate PR campaigns warning young people of the dangers of alcohol, but clinical studies of such anti-drug ads reveal questionable levels of successes. One measure that will certainly improve knowledge of the issue and hopefully lead to more efficient public responses is further surveillance and updated statistics. Restricting ads for alcohol may also produce some small but measurable benefits. But Moritsugu's suggestions, however well-intended, are too general to lead to individual action. In the end, although young people should certainly be made aware of the risks incurred by drinking excessively, greater enforcement of pre-existing laws and ads produced by government panels are unlikely to dissuade the average teen. The best way to address this problem may be on a personal, case-by-case basis. 

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