Health issues – public policy groups tackle alcohol-related health problems among young people

Elisabeth Holmgren

Health Issues

Public policy groups, led by Surgeon General Dr. Antonia Novello, have called for education efforts and sensible advertising practices to reduce underage drinking problems. At a recent press conference, Novello asked for the industries voluntary elimination of the types of licensed beverage advertising that appeal to youth, and to focus educational efforts beyond the individual drinker to the broader societal, political, and economic forces which contribute to alcohol-related problems.

However, contrary to many peer reviewed scientific studies, recommended approaches seem to emphasize procontrol approaches such as advertising restrictions, as well as education messages that stress no-use rather than no-misuse, not only for people under 21 but for a much broader spectrum of society.

This becomes not only clear through research done by the Inspector General’s Office on behalf of the Surgeon General, but also through other reports and program efforts by the Office of Substance Abuse and Prevention (OSAP) and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Many independent experts have expressed concerns about the effectiveness of education approaches that fail to stress responsible decision-making skills and no-misuse messages.

Prof. Ruth Engs, of the Department of Applied Health Sciences at Indiana University, who has done extensive work in the area of education, public policy, and underage drinking, stresses that young people should be taught not only the process of making responsible choices, but also techniques for safe and low-risk drinking through positive education programs.

Rutgers University, the leading center on alcohol studies, has just released a monograph on society, culture, and drinking patterns which provides a comprehensive examination of ethanol use from a sociological perspective. The indepth work gives important insights for the development of positive and effective education programs by analyzing the influence of family, peer, media, and policy developments on drinking patterns. Among the conclusions, contributors to the 800-page monograph emphasize that societies with low ethanol abuse problems (a) portray any alcohol abuse or overindulgence as unacceptable, and (b) make drinking of alcoholic beverages an adjunct to sociability and not the focus of an occasion.

The monograph also refutes many commonly-held beliefs about procontrol recommendations, and addresses other important questions. One of the monograph editors. Dr. David Pittman from Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., states that in societies where responsible decision making skills towards alcoholic beverages are taught during an early age, alcohol abuse trends are low. This, in fact, is contrary to the Surgeon General’s remarks that, “The longer a younger person delays drinking for the first time, the fewer problems with alcohol and drugs he or she will have in his or her life.” Over the last couple of years, various government organizations have called for, developed, and undertaken education and prevention programs stressing the no-use rather than the no-misuse message.

However, a recently-released report by the United States General Accounting Office (GAO) specifically emphasizes that there is a lack of evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of the no-use approach over other education programs to reduce alcohol abuse problems, especially among young people. The report criticizes programs undertaken by the Department of Education, as well as the Health and Human Services Department and the Office of Substance Abuse and Prevention, for their no-use approach to alcohol abuse prevention for youth. While GAO recognizes that alcoholic beverage consumption for youth is illegal, it is their conclusion that there are no laws which would rule out approaches which teach responsible decision-making skills.

Furthermore, the report states that the responsible decision-making approach would reduce risky behaviors such as drinking and driving and would encourage moderate and responsible behavior for all individuals, including those who nevertheless choose to consume beer, wine or spirits. The support for a wider range of possible approaches to alcohol abuse prevention could lead to better results and, most important, to the identification of the most successful education strategies. Along these lines, the editors of the newly-released Rutgers monograph emphasize that public policy makers should evaluate the most current social science literature before formulating alcoholic beverage policy recommendations.

Elizabeth Holmgren is the Director of the Research and Education Department at Wine Institute.

COPYRIGHT 1991 Hiaring Company

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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