No winking at underage drinking

Entry into adulthood takes many forms, ranging from ceremonial to casual. But the US Surgeon General warns of a growing willingness by Americans to accept underage drinking as a youthful rite of passage, and one with dangerous consequences.

In a new call to action, Acting Surgeon General Kenneth Moritsugu describes alcohol as the "drug of choice" for teenagers. He points to an estimated 11 million underage drinkers in the US, and more than 7 million "binge" drinkers – those who consume more than five drinks on one occasion. More than 2 million of these young people are considered heavy drinkers. He blames adult tolerance for some of that high use.

He also cautions that young people who start drinking before the age of 15 are five times more likely to have alcohol- related problems later in life. Nearly 20 percent of 14-year-olds say they have been drunk at least once.

The report does not request new laws. Instead, Dr. Moritsugu wants to end alcohol advertising in college publications, along with sponsorship of college events by alcohol companies. He also calls for fewer billboards to be used by the industry.

Such steps would help. But the amount of alcohol advertising on television alone presents a formidable challenge. Between 2001 and 2005, alcohol companies spent $4.7 billion on 1.4 million ads for alcoholic beverages. Spending for distilled-spirits ads soared from $5 million in 2001 to $122 million in 2005, according to the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown University.

No one can pretend these ads have no influence on underage viewers. Asked to choose their favorite TV commercial in a 2005 study, teens between the ages of 12 and 19 ranked ads for two brands of beer as No. 1 and No. 4.

The Distilled Spirits Council says "its member companies believe any amount of underage drinking is too much, and all interested parties need to continue to work together to stop illegal access to alcohol by youth." That vague reference to "all interested parties" could be viewed as an artful dodge. The group's sincerity will be measured by its own willingness to follow the Surgeon General's recommendations.

As further evidence of the challenge, this week the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University will issue a report showing increases in binge drinking and in prescription and illegal drug abuse among college students.

Yet a larger question remains: Why do so many students feel the need to binge-drink themselves into a kind of temporary mental oblivion? What peer pressure or emptiness in their young lives prompts such behavior, especially considering the risks and dangers it precipitates, among them drunk driving, alcohol-related sexual assaults, and academic problems?

The good news is that there has been a significant decline in tobacco use among teens, mirroring societal attitudes about smoking and government campaigns against it. A current campaign by the Federal Trade Commission declares teen drinking to be "unsafe ... illegal ... irresponsible." That's fine, but the FTC isn't being aggressive enough. In fact, both state and federal governments should help make underage drinking as "uncool" as smoking cigarettes has become.

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