Antidrug ad blitz criticized for omitting 'drug of choice'
On Capitol Hill, pressure mounts to include underage drinking in $1billion campaign.
WASHINGTON — College-bound Brendan Brogan feels fortunate. Back when he was 14, the New Jersey teen survived a night of binge-drinking that left him hospitalized.
Four years later, Mr. Brogan is urging the government to help millions of other youths avoid the same mistake by including alcohol warnings in a major new campaign against drug abuse.
So far, he has failed - but not for lack of compelling arguments.
"Most kids know exactly where they can get alcohol if they want to," Brogan says, citing studies showing that 90 percent of 10th-graders consider alcohol easy to obtain.
Readily available and culturally condoned, alcohol is the most widely used drug among youths - "the drug of choice," as Brogan puts it - with teen consumption on the rise since the early 1990s.
Moreover, studies show alcohol is a "gateway drug"; underage youths who drink are several times more likely to take up illicit drugs.
So why, Brogan and other advocates ask, has the Clinton administration's drug-control office excluded alcohol prevention from its five-year, nearly $1 billion National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign - the biggest national media blitz of its kind?
"We're baffled at why it seems to be ignored," says George Hacker, director of the alcohol-policies project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) here.
Dozens of groups, including CSPI, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) are lobbying for the campaign to include anti-alcohol messages.
The omission has also drawn concern on Capitol Hill, where a bipartisan group of House lawmakers is backing a provision that would explicitly allow the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which is running the campaign, to air "messages discouraging underage alcohol consumption." The measure passed a House Appropriations Subcommittee last month and is expected to come before the full committee this month.
BACKERS of the House measure, sponsored by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D) of California, face strong opposition from the alcoholic-beverage industry, especially beer wholesalers, and some lawmakers such as Rep. Anne Northup (R) of Kentucky. Ms. Northup received more than $38,000 from beer, wine, and liquor groups in 1997 and 1998, more than any House Appropriations Committee member, according to CSPI.
Still, even if the House measure prevails, officials from the drug-control office, headed by Gen. Barry McCaffrey, say they have no intention of changing the Anti-Drug Media Campaign.
"There are no plans right now that I am aware of to include anti-alcohol," messages in the campaign, says Charles Blanchard, chief counsel for the McCaffrey office.
The ONDCP contends it was not authorized by the original 1998 legislation to address underage alcohol use in the campaign. Although that legislation does not define "drugs," the ONDCP's statute refers to drugs as "controlled substances," which are in turn defined in another act as excluding alcohol, Mr. Blanchard says. (He acknowledges, however, that one could argue that the ONDCP is not bound by such a narrow definition.)
As a result, to "mindlessly" add anti-alcohol messages at this late stage would tax resources, diluting the rest of the campaign and resulting in "a failure," Blanchard says.
"With the appropriation we have now [$185 million for 2000], we are barely able to meet the reach and frequency of advertising that it takes to cut through the clutter," he says, adding, "We have to act as if we were Nike."
In addition, far more research is needed to gauge which antidrinking messages work among different age groups and to create appropriate ads, ONDCP argues.
"We agree there should be an anti-alcohol campaign," Says Blanchard, "but we need to do it right so it will work."
Yet such arguments do not sway anti-alcohol groups and their supporters on Capitol Hill.
"This is the first time this much money has been spent in a concerted effort at the national level on a problem like this, and adding alcohol would be a breakthrough," says Brandy Anderson, director of state legislative affairs for MADD.
ANTI-ALCOHOL messages are an essential component of such a media drive, because of the close link between underage alcohol abuse and later use of illicit drugs, advocates argue.
Government statistics show that the average age children start drinking alcohol is 13, and 3 out of 5 teens have had an alcoholic drink in the last month, says Ms. Roybal-Allard. And "more than 67 percent of kids who start drinking before age 15 end up using illicit drugs," she says.
Including alcohol warnings could be as simple as adding a few words at the conclusion of each antidrug ad, says Roybal- Allard.
However, Mr. Hacker and other advocates contend that fear of alcohol industry retaliation is preventing other lawmakers and officials from taking that step.