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Alcohol rots your brain and other lies the government tells you

Feature: How science became propaganda and fueled Utah’s $3 million anti-teen-drinking campaign



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Pour Johnny a Little Sip
Just 22 percent of Utah’s college students drank any alcohol in the course of a month in 2005. Twelve percent had “binged,” according to statistics from the state Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.

Nationally, drinking rates by young people have been dropping like a stone since the 1980s, when federal highway funds were tied to states upping the drinking age to 21. According to the federal government’s annual surveys of 8th- 10th- and 12th-graders, the number of students age 12 to 17 who had any alcohol the past month dropped from 50 percent in 1979 to 18 percent in 2002. Freshmen entering college in 2003 reported the lowest alcohol consumption in the 38-year history of a national survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.

We are becoming a nation of teetotalers. Youth drinking rates are in fact now so low that they are alarming to some scientists concerned with increasing evidence about the health benefits of alcohol.

If public health campaigns were based solely on science, the ads might look different: A graveside and the caption: “Poor Johnny. If only he drank more.” That’s because a mountain of evidence coming out of medical laboratories is suggesting that the health benefits attributed to red wine were only the beginning. Increasingly, research is suggesting that moderately drinking anything alcoholic improves health—particularly brain health.

Studies still show that being a drunk is bad for you. But, compared to those who don’t imbibe, drinking alcohol is associated with reduced risk of stroke, heart disease, cancer, age-related blindness, rheumatoid arthritis, depression, the common cold and even hardening of the arteries, which can begin at a young age. Some studies cite not drinking as a risk factor for death. In recent years, studies published in journals including Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine have shown that moderate drinking is an important aid to thinking processes throughout life and has been shown specifically to ward off Alzheimer’s disease.

Hanson worries that if teens take the abstinence message to heart, it could set them up for alcoholism problems later in life. tells Utah parents that children who start drinking at 15 have a five-times greater chance of becoming problem drinkers than those who start after 21. The claim appears to come from a study of 13-year-old drinkers published this year in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. But parents also may want to worry if Johnny hasn’t started drinking soon enough.

Studies have shown those who start drinking significantly later in life than their peers have a much-increased chance of becoming drunks. Hanson’s own research found a higher incidence of problem-drinking in cultures with religions that eschew all alcohol use. Studies of youth drinking habits in parts of the world where teen drinking is allowed suggest puritanical attitudes may be contributing to problem drinking among America’s youth. A 2002 study published in the journal Addiction found that 15- to 24-year-olds in Canada, where the drinking age is as low as 18, drank more frequently than U.S. youth but were drunk much less. suggests one way to keep kids from drinking is by having family dinners three times a week. This Cosby Show suggestion is based on a NCASA telephone survey of teens.

Proponents of moderate drinking, however, also suggest dinner with parents can be a key to preventing teen-alcohol problems—if, that is, Mom and Dad pour Johnny a glass of wine. Several studies suggest drinking under the watchful eye of their parents can protect kids against binging.

A 2004 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that drinking with parents at home reduced overall teen-alcohol use by half and binging by one-third. The Public Health Center at Liverpool John Moores University in England confirmed that finding in its own research this year.
Hanson suggests instead of just saying “no,” consider the drinking behavior of some immigrant communities in which young people may be given a sip at the dinner table from an early age and encouraged to respect—but not fear—alcohol.

His proposal is similar to one called Choose Responsibility, which John McCardell Jr. president emeritus of Middlebury College in Vermont, initiated this year to promote lowering the drinking age in the name of preventing youthful drunkenness.

McCardell’s organization wants a provisional drinking license allowing 18-year-olds to drink after completion of alcohol-education classes. American teens, he argues, don’t learn to drink responsibly at home. Then they head to college and tear up the campus.

Utah state prevention experts say a strong “no drinking” message will work because Parents Empowered is aimed not at teens but at their parents. Utah surveys of teen drug use show a strong correlation between kids who don’t use and those warned not to by Mom and Dad.

The alternative, letting Johnny have a taste, may be frightening given the suggestion—like the one quoted by the cardboard-cutout kid at your neighborhood liquor store—that young drinkers have a hugely increased chance of growing up into drunks.

But the federal government’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) warns against drawing a connection between early drinking and later alcoholism. “It is not clear whether starting to drink at an early age actually causes alcoholism, or whether it simply indicates an existing vulnerability to alcohol use disorders,” NIAAA wrote in a 2003 statement.

Many studies have sought a connection between early drinking and addiction and found none. “Problems seen in adulthood among early drinkers existed prior to their taking that first drink,” wrote the authors of a 2001 study published in the journal Alcoholism. Early drinking “is more likely a ‘symptom’ of an underlying vulnerability … rather than a ‘cause’ of increased rates of alcoholism.”

The new brain science may yet help thin the ranks of problem drinkers by helping find people early who have inclinations toward alcoholism. The research on the topic is just beginning.

Glen Hanson (no relation to David Hanson), director of the Utah Addiction Center at the University of Utah, longtime researcher of drug effects on the brain and one-time director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse for George W. Bush, advocates tests of thinking skills as a way to ferret out young people at risk for addiction.

“We are far from understanding all the specific causes and effects,” he says in an e-mail about the emerging brain-alcohol science. “But we know enough to say with certainty that bad things do happen if an adolescent drinks, and those bad things almost certainly impact cognition … perhaps resulting in a compromised ability to make good decisions.”

Craig PoVey, head of drug and alcohol prevention in Utah, says with what is known today, the responsible approach is to teach abstinence.

“I have reservations about saying anything [brain damage] is ‘permanent’ at this point,” PoVey says. “We don’t want to convey a message you are going to be mentally retarded. But, on the other hand, when you see the research, it shows there is an impact on the brain we didn’t know about before. We need to communicate that. From what we know now, the best way to raise kids is alcohol-free.”

As to the accuracy of Utah’s alcohol-free campaign in conveying its brain-drain claims, PoVey at first says, “I don’t know if I should answer that.” He quickly adds he is OK with the “trash your kids’ brain” message, as long it’s linked to the Website where parents can check sources and studies.

“Where I get a little uncomfortable is when people take it and try to apply it at the local levels, don’t show the reference articles with it, and go out there and say, ‘It’s causing permanent brain damage,’” he says.

“We learned those messages about scare tactics 30 years ago. They do more harm than good.”