As a nation, the United States is inordinately subject to moral panics. Witches, predominantly "spinsters," and those procreating and hard-drinking Irish and Italians were early targets. Their actual or imagined lifestyles were taken as a threat. Both the abuse of dangerous drugs among distressed individuals and exaggerated moral panics about minorities' life styles are most intense during periods of economic distress and insecurity. When certain lifestyles are monitored in and identified with already suspect segments of the population, fear of both the group and the behavior intensify together. Economic reform is necessary in addressing this phenomenon, but moralistic approaches to alcohol and drugs are just as important in their own right.
Amidst talk about NSA surveillance and bans on gay marriage, there is another social issue with enormous potential to affect civil liberties and the direction of future political discourse. The federal government is funding a series of forums on underage drinking. Citizens are being told that any use of alcohol by our teens sets them up for serious future problems. The arguments being advanced may sound like innocent public health initiatives to which some progressives will respond -- properly -- with the demand that counseling and therapy take precedence over harsh legal remedies. But progressives need to be equally attuned to moralistic interpretations as to what constitutes serious drinking problems and to the civil liberties implications. Parents are being told to monitor and prevent all underage drinking. The police are being encouraged to begin effective and even handed enforcement. Here in my home state of Maine, police have broken into homes where no other activity aside from a few teens having a beer was occurring. Worse still, all of the forums here in Maine present only one side of the issue.
The latest claim is that there is an underage drinking epidemic, that the dangers of alcohol are insufficiently appreciated by many adults, and that our children's future depends on ratcheting up the just-say-no approach to teen drinking. More American teens go to bed hungry every night than hung over, but the Bush administration does not sponsor forums on this topic. In addition, more young adults were binge drinkers 25 years ago than today.
On the surface, the strongest and most alarming claims are two fold: 1) There is new scientific evidence revealing the dangers of even moderate alcohol consumption to the teen brain. 2) Drinking at an early age triggers later alcohol abuse.
One should always be wary when claims are made for new scientific discoveries. Dr. David J Hanson, a world-renowned expert on the politics and aetiology of alcohol abuse, points out that many of the "new findings" are extrapolations from rat studies. Others are based on treating young, severely-alcohol-dependent teens. Their applicability to moderate teen drinking has been challenged by many experts.
In addition, earlier attempts to document connections between cognitive impairment or later alcohol abuse with moderate alcohol consumption by underage subjects have been contradicted by later studies showing that demographic variables, including educational, cultural, and even genetic factors led to the harmful outcomes. Most interestingly of all, epidemiological studies show that adults who take up drinking well after their peers also experience disproportionate numbers of serious alcohol problems. "Just say no" warriors would surely not conclude from this that such adults would be better off by drinking earlier.
There is also considerable clinical and epidemiological evidence that moderate drinking can combat heart disease among adults. Arterial hardening starts at a very young age, but we don't know if early alcohol consumption would benefit teens in an analogous way. An intriguing but little-reported Australian study does show cognitive enhancement from moderate alcohol consumption by subjects as young as 20.
Unfortunately, if an intrepid investigator wanted to document positive effects of moderate drinking among 16- to 26-year-olds, he would be unlikely to receive research funding. Over the years, scientists working under grants from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism have authored studies indicating mental as well as cardiovascular benefits from moderate consumption among adults. Nonetheless, some of these studies have been withheld or underpublicized by the bureaucracy. Political considerations have often guided government recommendations and research, as has been the case with marijuana.
Finally, any brain research confronts an inherent dilemma that makes conclusions problematic. Humans' culturally mediated behaviors, of which drinking is one, are enabled by the circuitry and neurochemistry of the brain, but they are not uniquely determined by hardware and biochemical connections. Language and culture also emerge and develop in particular forms through social interaction. In addition, conscious techniques, such as meditation, exert observable effects on the architecture of the brain. An individual's beliefs can also have a discernible effect on the evolution of the brain. Neurons that fire together wire together, in the famous phrase. Some studies indicate that alcohol's ability to induce violence is intensified when subjects are instructed on the violence-enhancing propensities of alcohol. Might research subjects informed that even small amounts of alcohol make one stupid not respond in an analogous manner? I don't know the answer, but stigmatizing all underage drinking makes it more difficult to obtain data and affects the outcome of the research.
When I ran my concerns by one leading public health advocate, he responded that until the science is in, the default position should be to tell our teens not to drink. No product, however, can ever be fully proven safe. For me, the default position is to tell teenagers the truth: there is some evidence that moderate alcohol intake may damage the brain, but most other scientists dispute these conclusions. A few even see some benefit in certain circumstances. The one consensus is that excessive consumption is dangerous both short- and long-term.
As long as we allow 18-year-olds to vote, join the Army and drive, they, like older adults, can and must make difficult risk- reward choices. We should discuss these with them. If we are going to withhold alcohol, why not iPods, cell phones or Coca-Cola, which become hard-to-break lifestyle habits that may harm cognitive development. I tell both teenage and adult friends -- to little avail -- that for 90% to 95% of them, cutting their driving in half would convey far better health benefits to us all than cutting their drinking in half.
More on why "just say no" doesn't work and lessons to be learned from other societies in my next column.
John Buell is a columnist for the Bangor Daily News. To comment, criticize and/or request an annotated bibliography and relevant Web sites, email firstname.lastname@example.org.