Nation called on to cut teen drinking

By KATRINA WOZNICKI, UPI Science News  |  Sept. 11, 2003 at 11:39 AM
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WASHINGTON, Sept. 11 (UPI) -- A panel assembled by the National Academy of Sciences has called for hefty increases in taxes on beer and increased pressure on the alcohol and entertainment industries to deglamorize drinking in music and videos. The aim is to curb an epidemic of teenage drinking in the United States that is costing the country a whopping $53 billion a year.

The NAS issued the panel's recommendations in conjunction with the academy's Institute of Medicine. The panel called on all societal channels -- including Congress, industry, and grassroots community efforts -- to work together to combat teen drinking.

"All segments of U.S. society should address underage drinking in a serious, coordinated, and sustained manner," Richard J. Bonnie, director of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and chair of the panel that authored the report, said at a news conference. "We have to find effective ways to protect our nation's youth while we respect the interests of responsible adult consumers of alcohol. The recommendations in this report attempt to strike the right balance."

The report concluded previous efforts to target young people with anti-drinking messages have failed. Rather than telling teens not to drink, it is up to parents, teachers, community leaders, the alcohol and entertainment industries, and the government to take action, the report said.

Excise taxes topped the panel's recommendations because research shows even small changes on alcohol taxes can have an impact on underage drinking, Bonnie said. Although the report did not cite an exact tax amount, he continued, "Congress and state legislatures should raise excise tax rates on alcohol, particularly on beer, which studies show is the alcoholic beverage that most young people prefer."

Bonnie noted alcohol today is far cheaper than it was 30 or 40 years ago, after adjusting for inflation, making it easier for kids to afford it.

The report also urged the entertainment and media industries to restrict alcohol advertising in markets targeting young people and to take more responsibility over where and how alcohol is promoted.

"The wine (industry) are finding their legal age audience," David Jernigan, research director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Use at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., told United Press International. "We think the other companies can, too."

On Tuesday, the Federal Trade Commission announced beer and distilled spirits trade associations joined the wine industry to revise the threshold to 70 percent for the minimum proportion of adults in a market audience. The NAS committee said this was a step in the right direction, but urged the alcohol beverage industries to raise that threshold even higher.

"Alcohol companies, advertising firms, and commercial media should refrain from marketing practices -- such as certain product designs -- that have particular appeal to young people," Bonnie said.

Jernigan called the NAS's recommendations on advertising "common sense," noting, "the amount of alcohol in advertising that's reaching young people permits alcohol companies to out-shout parents, to out-shout teachers."

Beer industry representatives dismissed the report, suggesting the NAS was trying to turn back the clock to the Prohibition Era of the 1920s and 1930s and arguing a tax hike would do little to curb teen drinking.

"Research has shown that for youth -- unlike adults -- higher prices do not impact underage drinking," said Jeff Becker, president of The Beer Institute in Washington.

Raising excise taxes, Becker said, "means jobs will be lost and responsible adults who enjoy beer will pay higher prices. Taxes borne by beer consumers are already far higher than those of most other products in the United States. In fact, federal, state, and local taxes are the most expensive ingredient in every beer purchased, making up approximately 44 percent of the cost of every beer."

The National Beer Wholesalers Association in Alexandria, Va., noted the alcohol industry already has implemented initiatives to combat underage drinking and the report fails to review such existing strategies.

"It is unfortunate the NAS panel has wasted a real opportunity to identify programs that fight underage drinking by ignoring the intent of Congress," said NBWA President David Rehr. "What was meant to be a thorough, meaningful and comprehensive study is instead a plea for Congress to raise taxes on hard-working adult consumers of legal drinking age."

Although the legal drinking age is 21 across the United States, the report claims as many as 90 percent of high school seniors report easy access to alcohol. In 2002, for example, almost half of all 12th graders reported drinking at least one alcoholic beverage in the previous month. More than 25 percent of high school seniors reported drinking five or more drinks in the previous two weeks, according to the report.

Advocacy groups agreed with the report's recommendation that adults must get involved to help prevent teen drinking. Young people are not going to stop drinking until adults give them good reasons to stop, Wendy Hamilton, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, told UPI.

"You can tell kids not to drink and that's not good enough," Hamilton said. "You've got to educate them. Alcohol is the drug of choice for young people. Too many of them are being harmed by this issue."

In 2000, Hamilton noted, the federal government spent $1.8 billion in the war against illegal drug use, but only $71 million on underage drinking, even though underage drinking kills 6.5 times more youngsters than drugs. "There's a huge disconnect there," she said.

The report also received the attention of Congress. At a news conference on Capitol Hill shortly after the NAS briefing, Hamilton was joined by representatives from both sides of the aisle in Congress calling for legislative action. Hamilton said Congressman Frank Wolf, R-Va., has offered to write the White House Drug Czar to urge increased funding to combat underage drinking.

Topics: Frank Wolf
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