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

Late last year, state alcohol regulators ran a 12-page spread in Utah’s two largest daily newspapers about the dangers of teen drinking. It was part of a $1.6 million ad campaign spurred on by urgency.

New research suggests if Johnny drinks before his 21st birthday, he will suffer permanent brain damage, increase fivefold his chances of becoming an alcoholic and may never develop parts of the brain required for becoming a responsible adult. State legislators liked the campaign so much, they doubled down this past January, plunking another $1.7 million into a massive effort to convince Utah’s parents that, before a child’s 8th birthday, they should be teaching alcohol is a poison that destroys young minds.

Craig PoVey, head of prevention at Utah’s Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, says the emerging science on alcohol’s impact on the teen brain—endorsed by the office of the U.S. Surgeon General and the American Medical Association—is so compelling that it has moved the bar about how best to educate teens on drinking. It’s no longer enough to try to keep drinking teens safe; they must be instructed not to drink at all.

“Now that we know [teen drinking] is getting in the way of becoming a successful person later in life, we need to make sure people understand alcohol is still the most damaging drug kids can use,” PoVey says. “There are still a definite minority of folks who think the way to teach kids is to teach them how to ‘drink responsibly.’ The issue with that is until you are 21—and some research says until the mid-20s—the effect of alcohol on the brain is damaging. Our position is a zero tolerance.”

Utah’s campaign to deliver that zero-tolerance message is colorful, creative and replete with medical illustrations of sliced-open skulls, the brains inside meticulously labeled. It includes downloadable lesson plans for teaching your kid about the “new” brain science. State liquor stores have signed on, too—propping up cardboard cutout teen figures next to the merchandise with thought bubbles above their heads. (“I need all the brain cells I can get. New research shows underage drinking can cause permanent brain damage.”) Tags slipped over the necks of wine bottles turn into stick-on labels for use at home with a space to write a child’s name above the message, “At your age, drinking is dangerous.”

{::INSERTAD::}And finally, a fleet of 50 garbage trucks turned into moving billboards currently rolls through Salt Lake County featuring the image of a child sitting on a trash pile and the message, “Alcohol can trash your kid’s brain.”

Launching the campaign in October, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. wrote in an “open letter” to the parents of Utah, “New scientific evidence proves underage drinking can cause permanent damage to a teen’s rapidly developing brain.”

But it’s not true. Permanent brain damage from early alcohol use hasn’t been proven. Far from it. And an increasing chorus of critics thinks the new zero-tolerance approach to teen drinking soon to spread from Utah to the rest of the country could have exactly the opposite of the intended effect—driving young people to drink just as their great-grandparents did during Prohibition, and reversing youth drinking trends, which have been plummeting for decades. Teen brains, emerging brain science tells us, are hardwired for rebellion.

Critics of the campaign, armed with stacks of their own research, say the handsomely funded, zero-tolerance blitz is yet another example of the Bush presidency’s assault on actual science in favor of pandering to his right-wing political base.

And in Utah, especially, the tactic is working beautifully.

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Ted McDonough

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