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The brain-drain campaign went national early this year but, perhaps not surprisingly, Utah is ahead of the curve. By March 2007, when the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office put out a “call to action” to states requesting action against underage drinking, Utah had been working on its campaign for two years. In 2005, Utah officials met in Washington, D.C., with former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, now U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, and signed on to the federal government’s “start talking before they start drinking” campaign. Back home, Utah held more “town hall” teen-drinking meetings than any state in the nation, and the Utah Legislature quickly passed a law to fund an ad campaign.
The national offices of Mothers Against Drunk Driving plan to highlight Utah’s campaign as a model for the rest of the country. With other activist groups, MADD has been pressing former Surgeon General Richard Carmona for a proclamation on teen drinking since 2003. Activists complained Carmona ignored the calls until one of the nation’s largest bankrollers of anti-alcohol campaigns formed Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free, a group of state politicians’ wives prominently including the wife of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Carmona met with the group but hadn’t issued the “call to action” before he quit last year, famously complaining to Congress this summer of the Bush administration substituting right-wing political correctness for science. It fell to his replacement, “acting” Surgeon General Kenneth Moritsugu, to issue the directive against teen drinking this year.
Since then, the antidrinking effort has been on the fast track. Last December, Congress passed the Sober Truth on Preventing Underage Drinking Act, the nation’s first stand-alone legislation to raise funding solely to combat underage drinking.
In Utah, state alcohol regulators awarded the anti-teen-drinking contract to R&R Partners, the agency that created the “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas” campaign for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
All ads in the campaign developed for Utah refer to a centerpiece Website, ParentsEmpowered.org, where parents can find page after page discussing teen-brain research and suggestions on techniques for keeping teens from drinking.
“Mind-altering substances like alcohol alter your child’s developing brain in tragic ways, leaving him or her a slave to addiction,” the site says. “Memory, learning and impulse control can be impaired forever.”
The claims are interpretations of research performed beginning in the late-1990s, as summarized by an American Medical Association report on which the state’s campaign relies.
The argument works like this: New brain research shows the human brain undergoes significant rewiring during adolescence, essentially remodeling itself. Researchers found that when “teenage” rats around 40 days old were fed large amounts of alcohol, the part of the rat brain related to impulse control was damaged and parts of the brain related to learning and memory slowed down. The teen rats had a harder time getting through mazes than did adult rats given the same amount of alcohol.
Parents Empowered spends the most time on the work of two University of California-San Diego researchers who examined the brains of drinking teens under brain scans. They found the boozers performed worse on some thinking tests than nondrinking teens. Brain scan images showed areas of inactivity, and underdeveloped brain sections.
That much you can learn by reading ParentsEmpowered.org.
By visiting that Website, though, you won’t find out that the teens studied weren’t weekend partiers but rather teenagers pulled from treatment centers who had serious enough drinking problems to have experienced extreme withdrawal symptoms.
There are many other mitigating factors. But the main problem with the now-fashionable claim of permanent brain damage from teen drinking is that it defies common sense. So says David Hanson, emeritus professor at the State University of New York at Potsdam, a longtime researcher of college drinking and one of the leading academics questioning the “neoprohibitionist” trend of federal and state teen-drinking campaigns.
Hanson asks, if drinking by young people were causing brain damage, then why aren’t all the baby boomers idiots? Why are there no roving bands of dullards in southern Europe, where drinking from a young age is commonplace?
“We just don’t have any evidence, it seems to me, that Italians, Greeks, people from southern France or Spain, that their young people are suffering any mental deficiencies,” Hanson says. In fact, youth from those nations typically outscore students in the United States on academic tests. “The naturalistic setting doesn’t seem to support this [teen-brain conclusion], and research even doesn’t seem to support it to me.”
What Hanson and likeminded scholars object to in the new antidrinking campaigns is the hype. It’s hard to present the subtleties of science on the side of a garbage truck.