Carter-era Health Secretary Joseph Califano caused a stir in late February when his National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, which is affiliated with Columbia University, claimed that underage drinkers account for 25 percent of all alcohol consumed in America. It later turned out that CASA had got the numbers wrong.
The official statistics CASA had used actually suggested that the true figure was 11.4 percent. Nevertheless, Califano stood his ground.
"The bottom line here is that a tremendous number of children and teenagers are drinking and drinking to excess," he responded. "By any standard, this is an epidemic."
It was interesting, then, that such strident claims were absent this week when CASA released the results of their latest Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse. The study does not show the epidemic Califano warned us of. Fifty-seven percent of the teenagers surveyed said they never drink. (A similar percentage said they had never touched a drop in their lives.)
Only 3 percent claimed to drink once a day or more often. As for excess, 83 percent said that they never got drunk. Only 7 percent get drunk twice a month or more often. As epidemics go, this one is not very contagious.
It is also interesting that the new study appears to have muted Califano's calls for nationwide intervention to prevent this "binge-drinking problem." He called his previous study "a clarion call for national mobilization to curb underage drinking," but this further investigation, which asks children about their family's attitude to substance abuse, claims that "parental power is the most underutilized tool in helping teens steer clear of ... alcohol."
The study also reveals that teens believe that marijuana is easier to obtain than alcohol. While this may seem a disturbing finding at first, the fact is that 62 percent of students surveyed said that they had seen drugs neither kept, used nor sold at their schools in the past year. That is double the percentage saying that just four years ago.
Despite relative ease of purchase, substance abuse has ceased to be a major problem in schools. Drugs remain the No. 1 concern for teenagers in terms of problems facing the age group, but alcohol is considered a marginal worry. Only 2 percent of teens thought it the most important concern, the same number that worried about declining moral standards.
It seems that today's teenagers are increasingly sober, hard-working people. Wild accusations of epidemics of drinking should perhaps be subject to a little more temperance.
A new study by researchers at Williams College, published in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association, suggests a traditional herbal remedy does not provide the benefits its commercial manufacturers claim.
Gingko biloba is said by at least one major producer to "enhance mental focus and improve memory and concentration" after just four weeks of use. The manufacturer also claims more than 50 scientific studies that demonstrate benefit to memory and/or concentration.
The study participants were split into two groups, one of which received gingko and the other a placebo. Neither the participants nor the physicians knew who was receiving what dose during the trial. At the end of six weeks, they were examined for mental performance and the substance they were taking revealed. The study found that gingko "did not facilitate performance on standard neuropsychological tests of learning, memory, attention and concentration or naming and verbal fluency." In other words, the manufacturer's claims of effectiveness could not be validated scientifically.
Nevertheless, when pressed on this issue by reporters covering the story, the manufacturers fell back on their previous evidence. One spokesman told United Press International, "This study is just a single study amidst a wealth of clinical trials on gingko biloba and a single study shouldn't call into question the efficacy of 30 years of research." But this statement ignores the fact that the new study explicitly addressed the question of the reliability of previous studies.
In fact, these previous studies were less well designed than the current one. They were generally much smaller, and only found cognitive improvement in a single test of many administered after taking gingko. There is some suggestion from the previous research that gingko can improve mental functioning in patients who are already suffering from Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia, but that is a far cry from what the manufacturers claim.
As the researchers say, "despite the manufacturer's claims of improved memory in healthy adults, we were unable to identify any well-controlled studies that document this claim."
This research follows the recent news that the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine had found, after a three-year trial, that the popular herbal "anti-depressant" St. John's Wort was "no more effective for treating major depression of moderate severity than (a) placebo." Modern science is systematically investigating the claims made for ancient medicines. So far, all those traditional cures have proven to be merely old wives' tales.
Latest research from the Department of the Obvious: New Zealand obstetricians have discovered that "babies born under water could be at risk of drowning" ("Water birth drowning risk," British Broadcast Corp. News, Aug. 5.)
(Iain Murray is director of research at STATS -- the Statistical Assessment Service, a Washington-based non-profit, non-partisan public policy organization dedicated to analyzing social, scientific and statistical research. This column examines the facts behind recent statistical studies that have made the news but been misinterpreted, failed to make the news for some reason or are just plain weird.)