Is alcohol abuse being ignored in antidrug fervor?

When a first-year student at the University of Texas died after a night of partying with friends last week, the tragedy immediately brought to mind the cocaine-related death in June of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias. But in this case, the culprit was not cocaine or any of the other illegal drugs that are dominating the public's attention. The Texas youth fell victim to an older result of ``substance abuse'' -- alcohol poisoning. Last year there were at least 98,000 deaths in the United States directly related to alcohol abuse. During the same period cocaine, heroin, and other drugs were implicated in 3,562 deaths across the country.

Some leaders in the fight against alcoholism wish that incidents like the University of Texas freshman's death would galvanize public concern over alcohol abuse in the same way that Mr. Bias's death helped ignite the nation's current antidrug fervor.

Yet many people working to stop alcoholism say the nearly total absence of alcohol abuse from the current debate on drugs gives them little hope that the nation is ready to face a problem that affects many more individuals and costs society many times more than illegal drug abuse. They point out that alcohol is a legal drug that perhaps three-quarters of the adult population choose to use, making feelings about it more ambivalent.

``Every year or so we see a death like this, and it's something that happens at campuses across the country,'' says Lee Gustafson, a counselor with the Greater Austin Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. ``Unfortunately it doesn't capture the kind of attention the death of a Len Bias does. Because it's alcohol, we choose not to see it.''

Alcohol-abuse officials say that while they are pleased with the nation's new desire to tackle the illegal-drug problem, they are nevertheless concerned that the focus on drugs may push alcohol-related problems further from the public eye.

``It's really a mixed bag from our point of view,'' says Christine Lubinski, Washington representative of the National Council on Alcoholism. She says it remains ``unclear'' how much of the money Congress is talking about spending on drug-abuse treatment, prevention, and education could be used in programs treating alcohol abuse.

If drugs have become a favored whipping boy this fall while alcohol has not, it is in part because ``you don't have cocaine kingpins lobbying on Capitol Hill,'' Ms. Lubinski says. ``Certainly it's in the alcohol industry's interest to keep this debate focused on drug abuse.''

Congress can afford to sidestep the issue, some observers suggest, because American society generally accepts alcohol use -- and abuse.

``If alcohol were suddenly to be discovered today, it would probably be classed as a [Drug Enforcement Agency] Schedule Two drug along with cocaine and some of the barbiturates,'' Mr. Gustafson says. Yet despite the fact that 3.3 million American teen-agers show signs of severe alcohol-related problems, he adds, most parents still consider illegal drugs a greater threat to their children than alcohol.

Lubinski points out that US Education Secretary William Bennett recently said he was less concerned about drinking among students than the other use of drugs, because, in addition to drugs' harmful effects, drug use involves people in criminal activity themselves and also contributes to the support of major criminal elements. But Lubinski is unimpressed with the distinction. ``That's absolutely amazing to us,'' she says. ``I have a feeling the parents of the Texas student and the parents of Len Bias wouldn't grasp the nuance.''

Don Wegscheider, executive director of NewRoads, a private substance-abuse counseling program here, says he wanted to start two alcohol counseling and treatment programs -- one for high school students and one for college students. But only the program for the younger group panned out, he says.

``I think that because of people not wanting to look at [the problem], we were unable to get things going at the college age,'' he says. ``We couldn't even get referrals from the college, yet we know the problem's there.''

Other experts emphasize that by the time they reach college, many teen-agers have already established drinking and drug-taking patterns.

``We need to change attitudes, and that means targeting the younger kids,'' says Norma Phillips, president of MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). The annual poster and essay contest MADD sponsors with National Car Rental was expanded this year to schoolchildren across the country in Grades 1-12. The theme: Drunk drivers destroy dreams.

``Drunk driving is the No. 1 cause of death in the 16-to-24 age group,'' notes Ms. Phillips, who adds that the life expectancy for that age group has retreated to where it was 20 years ago, largely because of drunken driving. ``Ask the kids, they'll tell you, `Drugs are a problem, but alcohol is our major problem,' '' she says.

The chief spokeswoman for MADD adds, ``We say `alcohol and drugs' as if they're separate. But we need to bring out the fact more that alcohol is a drug.''

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