Perhaps it will take a report as shocking as the one released last week by the Department of Health and Human Services to shake up the nation's narrow anti-drug effort. If so, good. While the fight against illicit drugs has made great strides and remains critical, it has excluded alcohol abuse -- particularly among young people.
The new health department report found that 8 million junior and senior high school students -- some as young as 13 -- drink every week. More worrisome, nearly a third of those who drink say they drink alone; more than 4 out of 10 say they drink when they're upset because alcohol makes them feel better, and a quarter admit they drink simply to get high.
Surgeon General Antonia Novello has called this survey "shocking" and says she is "flabbergasted" by the depth of the problem. Yet it was predictable. The federal war on drugs, propped up by slick marketing from the alcoholic beverage industry, has made drinking -- even under-age drinking -- socially acceptable. Novella herself notes that many parents confide to her: "Thank God, my kids drink; they don't use drugs."
But alcohol is a drug. And the health department's most recent annual survey of high school seniors found the rhetoric of the so-called "war on drugs" has blurred the danger. For example, while only 14 percent of students had tried marijuana and less than 2 percent had tried cocaine, 57 percent reported drinking alcohol.
That speaks to the success of the war on one front, but it should be a call to action on another: With 20.7 million U.S. students in the seventh through 12th grades, this nation runs the risk of putting into the pipeline an alcohol-dependent work force that ultimately could produce a Soviet-style economic collapse.
Yet the Bush administration -- still reaping the political benefits of its touted war on drugs -- has proposed cutting the budget of the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism this year and pumping even more money into the National Institute on Drug Abuse. That throws the problem of alcohol squarely into the laps of the cities and counties.
Today, Baltimore County's Office of Substance Abuse is taking the first step by convening a special committee composed of representatives from a wide range of public and private groups -- the police department and state's attorney's office, the Department of Parks and Recreation, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and its student counterpart, SAAD, and the PTA. The goal is to find out how much under-age drinking is occurring in the county, precisely how children are getting alcohol, and then to come up with strategies in the areas of education, treatment and law enforcement -- all this to be done by the time school starts.
That's a daunting task. But with so much at stake, getting teen-age drinking under control must be on the top of every jurisdiction's agenda. The alternative is unthinkable.