Alcohol Abuse: Sleeper in Drug War

Experts say alcohol isn't getting the attention it deserves, but awareness continues to grow. `GATEWAY DRUG'

WITH the nation gearing itself up for a war on street drugs, is alcohol abuse taking a back seat? Alcohol was one drug not mentioned in President Bush's speech Sept. 5, and the legislation that established drug policy director William Bennett's office specifically excludes alcohol, because it is not a controlled substance.

``Alcohol abuse is not receiving the attention it deserves,'' says Patricia Taylor, director of the Alcohol Policies Project of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. ``Alcohol-related problems are so much more grave in terms of numbers of deaths and cost to society.''

While alcohol doesn't present the graphic images that cocaine and heroin do, with gang wars and crack babies, experts say it is actually a larger problem. According to the National Council on Alcoholism, there are 2 million drug addicts but 10.5 million alcoholics.

``We're concerned about it,'' says Allen Haveson, spokesman for the National Council on Alcoholism. ``There's so much attention to drugs that [alcohol abuse] just is overlooked. Law enforcement officers will look the other way when they see kids drinking because they don't have the manpower to handle heavy drinking on beaches; they have to look for drug dealers. `They're only doing alcohol - big deal,' they say, yet it really is.''

Drinking, he says, is the most serious substance-abuse problem among young people, both as a ``gateway'' drug that leads to street drugs and as a killer of the young. It is the leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds. And drug education doesn't have quite the same wallop when it comes to alcohol.

``In a survey, only 50 percent of fourth-graders knew that beer, wine, or liquor was a drug, while 87 percent knew that marijuana was a drug,'' says Mr. Haveson.

Part of the problem, he says, is that alcohol is legal. It's also advertised widely, and the models in ads, he says, while required by law to be over 25, usually look a lot younger.

Despite the lack of emphasis in Mr. Bush's antidrug drive, alcohol abuse continues to receive plenty of attention at the state level. California Gov. George Deukmejian signed a bill Sept. 14 that lowers the intoxication rate from 0.10 to 0.08 (that's the difference between five drinks an hour and four). Idaho, Oregon, and Maine have all adopted a 0.08 intoxication rate in the last few years.

Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop's May report on drunk driving contained some of the best ideas for getting a handle on the problem, alcohol-abuse experts say. It recommended a hefty excise tax on alcohol, warning labels on bottles of alcohol, not using celebrities in advertising, equal time messages on TV, and education and prevention.

Some of those recommendations are of being implemented. Labels, similar to those on cigarette packages, are starting to be placed on alcoholic beverage bottles. By November, a law requires that all bottles carry them.

``We're thinking that alcohol is getting a higher profile than it had two years ago, because of the problem with drugs,'' says Ms. Taylor. The United States Department of Education is revising its educational material to talk about alcohol as well as other drugs, she says.

An initiative in California would raise the taxes on beer, wine, and liquor. The tax on wine has not been raised since 1937, while the consumer price index in that time rose 700 percent, says Harvey Chinn, legislative director of the California Council on Alcohol Problems in Sacramento. Nine states raised taxes on alcohol last year.

``As communities grapple with drugs, they're realizing they have to grapple with alcohol, too,'' Taylor says. ``There is growing consumer and community interest in doing something about alcohol advertising in urban communities. In cities, groups are working to get rid of alcohol and tobacco ads. We're working with black and Hispanic organizations to protest malt liquor ads.

``Policymakers are starting to look at the drug kids first use,'' she says. ``Illegal drug use is declining, but alcohol use is staying the same.''

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