The Beer Industry
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THE BEER INDUSTRY was quick to denounce a recent report by the Institute of Medicine on underage drinking. This is hardly surprising, as the report recommended new taxes as part of a broad campaign to reduce the amount of alcohol consumed by American youth. The predictable controversy over many of the specific recommendations should not blunt the impact of the report, an eye-opening document that raises the question of how this problem has gone largely unaddressed for so long. Americans care if their children drink and drive, but the report makes a persuasive case that underage drinking is a big public policy problem even before cars come into the picture.
Consider the following data: In 1996, underage drinking caused 3,500 deaths, 2 million injuries, 1,200 babies born with fetal alcohol syndrome and 57,000 people having to be treated for alcoholism. The report estimates the “social cost” associated with underage drinking that year to be just under $53 billion. If that sounds outrageously high, consider the pervasiveness of the problem. In 2002, 20 percent of eighth-graders surveyed had drunk alcohol within the previous 30 days (vs. 11 percent who had smoked cigarettes and 8 percent who had smoked marijuana). Forty-nine percent of high school seniors are drinkers, and 29 percent “report having had five or more drinks in a row in the past two weeks.” Forty-one percent of college students report heavy drinking.
Yet government does not respond to youth drinking as it does to drug and tobacco use. In 2000, for example, this country spent $1.8 billion to discourage illegal drug use — and $71 million to discourage underage alcohol use.
The scope and severity of the problem demand a more comprehensive response. Tobacco use has declined dramatically in the United States in the past several decades, the result of a sustained public education and health awareness effort. Drinking, in some ways, poses a more challenging problem. Any level of tobacco use is bad for your health; the same isnt true of alcohol. And the widespread availability of alcohol in homes inevitably will impair efforts to crack down on youth access. So the message cannot be, as it is with cigarettes, that everyone should simply abstain. But society must send a much stronger message that children should not be drinking — even if theyre not planning to drive. And no option for addressing the problem should be off the table just because