According to a study published Tuesday by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA), underage drinkers account for 25 percent of all alcohol consumed in the U.S.
On the other side of the debate, spokespeople for America's largest liquor companies say CASA's numbers just don't add up. Frank Coleman, speaking for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States calls the study's results "flat-out wrong," according to the Associated Press. To achieve the numbers presented in the CASA report, Coleman claims, every American teenager who drinks would be obliged to consume 120 drinks per month. Phil Lynch, representing Jack Daniels Whiskey, was more blunt with the AP. "It looks like CASA has adopted Enron's accounting practices."
Back at CASA, officials acknowledged late Tuesday they did not follow accepted statistical sampling procedures. The real number, the organization admits, is probably closer to 11 percent. Sue Foster, vice president and director of policy research, defended CASA's methods Tuesday afternoon, saying, "We stand by the 25 percent figure as an estimate, and in the report we laid out very clearly in the report how we arrived at that number." Foster admits that while the numbers culled from the survey were lower than the figures published in the official report, researchers assumed they had to correct the initial numbers for a multitude of factors, including the fact that most surveys were completed by teenagers at home, with the permission of and within earshot of their parents. Researchers also opted not to include any responses from children younger than 12.
Even beyond the statistical flap, however, the study suggests a serious drinking problem among American teens. The survey, conducted over two years, found that more than 5 million high school students (or 31 percent) binge drink at least once a month. And, for the first time ever, those numbers are equal for boys and girls. (Bingeing is defined as getting drunk repeatedly over the course of one or two days). Forty percent of ninth graders (male and female) admit to drinking at least occasionally, and 81 percent of all high school students have consumed alcohol at some point.
Kids are drinking but that's not their only transgression, says Joseph Califano Jr., CASA president and former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. He maintains that underage drinking leads to other (even more risky) behaviors, including unprotected sex, drunk driving, drug abuse and even suicide. Hardly surprising, then, that grown-ups are alarmed. Of the 900 adults interviewed for the study, 76 percent believe parents should be held legally responsible for teen drinking; 86 percent call for restrictions on home delivery of alcohol; 74 percent support restrictions on alcohol advertising and 54 percent support increasing taxes on alcohol.
What's spurring this underage boozy behavior? Some point fingers at lax government oversight and barely enforced age limits on drinking. Others, including CASA, place much of the blame on advertisers. Critics charge that sweet, crayon-hued drinks in ads are designed specifically to nab young drinkers. CASA is particularly unhappy with NBC, the only network to break the 50-year voluntary ban on running liquor ads on television.