Drug War's New Front

THE war against drugs got a quick but welcome mention in the president's State of the Union speech. And the administration's new budget gives antidrug spending a 6.5 percent boost, up to $12.7 billion. The results of this war, however, are still unclear.

Some statistics show gains. The annual survey of high school seniors revealed a continuing decline in the portion identifying themselves as users of illicit drugs - down to 16 percent from almost twice that number a decade ago. The administration has hailed this as a victory, but while cocaine use, for example, has dropped, it still wreaks havoc in inner-city neighborhoods.

Perhaps most alarming, the use of alcohol among young Americans has held steady. The same survey of high school students indicated that binge drinking, five or more drinks in succession, is just as prevalent - around 43 percent of those surveyed - in 1991 as it was in 1980. And this particularly destructive form of alcohol use has grown on college campuses. Moreover, children today start drinking at an average age of 12.6 years.

That's why the best news from the antidrug front is that the federal government plans to expand its war to include youthful drinking. As drug policy director Bob Martinez points out, alcohol use by those under 21 is illicit drug use in every state and therefore ought to be targeted.

But how do you get at a problem that affects, to one degree or another, half the nation's seventh- through 12th-graders and 75 percent of its college students? Stiffer enforcement of underage-drinking laws is one way - and it should be pursued. Greatly increased antidrinking education and publicity is another. School-based drug-abuse programs sometimes tread a little too softly around the socially accepted habit of drinking. Many kids, after all, witness this form of drug use right at home.

Clearly, parents have to be recruited in the anti-alcohol effort. They should lobby for tougher enforcement of drinking laws and explain to their children that such laws are no more unreasonable, and just as promotive of health and safety, as statutes that prohibit driving before a certain age.

Teenagers should be helped to understand that drinking doesn't add to identity or status, but destroys them.

It would help if alcohol products, including beer, were clearly labeled as to the dangers they present - as tobacco products are. Overall drug use by the young has declined as the stupidity of the habit has become clearer to kids. The same process of education and positive peer pressure must be pushed into operation with alcohol.

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