A Big Lie About Youthful Drinking

by Dr. Dwight Heath

When a news story turns out to be grossly inaccurate, a few responsible journalists perform a public service by issuing a correction promptly. But few assume the further responsibility of investigating how or why the false report was issued in the first place.

A recent case deserves some explanation because it reveals a consistent pattern of misrepresentation by both a famous person and an academic institution, in ways that might discredit the scientific enterprises.

On Feb. 26, a former U. S. secretary of health, education and welfare, Joseph Califano, issued a press release through Columbia University's Center of Addition and Substance Abuse (CASA), viewing with alarm the finding that fully 25 percent of all the alcohol consumed in the U. S. was drunk by "underage" persons (sometimes called in the report "children," other times "teenagers," and other times "high-schoolers").

No matter the label put on the 12-to-20 age group, those data would be alarming -- if true. However, the finding was so patently false that the U. S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, which had conducted the survey from which that finding was supposedly derived, promptly issued a statement indicating that CASA's methodology had been fatally flawed, and the actual percentage was 11.4 percent (less than half the amount that had been claimed).

Without going into too much detail, the error stemmed from CASA's having ignored the fact that the younger age group had been deliberately "over-sampled" to assure that data on that relatively small part of the population not be "lost." CASA compared alcohol consumption as if the respondents were in proportion to their numbers in the general population. The survey had dealt with drinking habits of 25,500 people, of whom 9,759 (38 percent) were in the 12-to-20 category; according to the U. S. Census for the same year, that age group is only 13 percent of the population.

In a nutshell, Califano's scare headline, which he characterized as "a clarion call for national mobilization to curb underage drinking" had exaggerated the problem by more than 100 percent.

That big an error cannot easily be dismissed as merely a careless oversight, especially when it was the focus of an institution's own press release. Either Califano and the staff of CASA are so naïve about social surveys and demography that they have no business pretending to do scientific research on them, or it was intentional misrepresentation -- or both.

It may well be true that they are ignorant or naïve -- but I doubt that they would accept that judgment alone. It seems more likely that this was a case of deliberate misinformation, especially inasmuch as it fits with a long-term pattern of viewing-with-alarm and scaremongering that have won for Califano/CASA frequent reportable in their continuing effort to magnify America's problem of drinking by youths.

No one would deny that such a problem exists, and that it sometimes harms both your drinkers and others. But, a key scientific fact contradicts the Califano/CASA theme of a growing epidemic. According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the federal agency that has most to gain from exaggerating the alcohol problems, problem drinking by people in the age group under discussion has, in fact, declined almost steadily since 1980 by nearly 50 percent. (Incidentally, the same applies to the small sub-population who are college students, often misrepresented as drinking more, and more often, than before -- although the opposite is true.)

It doesn't much matter whether Califano is a latter-day Puritan in disguise, or whether he's just frantically trying to keep himself and CASA in business. In either case, such gross misrepresentation of reality should not be confused with science, and reporters should not be hasty to tout pseudo-scientific findings that are sensational but implausible.


Dr. Dwight Heath, Research Professor of Anthropology at Brown University, is the world's foremost anthropological authority on alcohol use and abuse.

*Reprinted with permission of the author. From: The Providence (RI) Journal, Apr. 12, 2002; p. B6.

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