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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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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.

The brain-drain campaign went national early this year but, perhaps not surprisingly, Utah is ahead of the curve. By March 2007, when the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office put out a “call to action” to states requesting action against underage drinking, Utah had been working on its campaign for two years. In 2005, Utah officials met in Washington, D.C., with former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, now U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, and signed on to the federal government’s “start talking before they start drinking” campaign. Back home, Utah held more “town hall” teen-drinking meetings than any state in the nation, and the Utah Legislature quickly passed a law to fund an ad campaign.

The national offices of Mothers Against Drunk Driving plan to highlight Utah’s campaign as a model for the rest of the country. With other activist groups, MADD has been pressing former Surgeon General Richard Carmona for a proclamation on teen drinking since 2003. Activists complained Carmona ignored the calls until one of the nation’s largest bankrollers of anti-alcohol campaigns formed Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free, a group of state politicians’ wives prominently including the wife of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Carmona met with the group but hadn’t issued the “call to action” before he quit last year, famously complaining to Congress this summer of the Bush administration substituting right-wing political correctness for science. It fell to his replacement, “acting” Surgeon General Kenneth Moritsugu, to issue the directive against teen drinking this year.

Since then, the antidrinking effort has been on the fast track. Last December, Congress passed the Sober Truth on Preventing Underage Drinking Act, the nation’s first stand-alone legislation to raise funding solely to combat underage drinking.

In Utah, state alcohol regulators awarded the anti-teen-drinking contract to R&R Partners, the agency that created the “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas” campaign for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

All ads in the campaign developed for Utah refer to a centerpiece Website,, where parents can find page after page discussing teen-brain research and suggestions on techniques for keeping teens from drinking.

“Mind-altering substances like alcohol alter your child’s developing brain in tragic ways, leaving him or her a slave to addiction,” the site says. “Memory, learning and impulse control can be impaired forever.”

The claims are interpretations of research performed beginning in the late-1990s, as summarized by an American Medical Association report on which the state’s campaign relies.

The argument works like this: New brain research shows the human brain undergoes significant rewiring during adolescence, essentially remodeling itself. Researchers found that when “teenage” rats around 40 days old were fed large amounts of alcohol, the part of the rat brain related to impulse control was damaged and parts of the brain related to learning and memory slowed down. The teen rats had a harder time getting through mazes than did adult rats given the same amount of alcohol.

Parents Empowered spends the most time on the work of two University of California-San Diego researchers who examined the brains of drinking teens under brain scans. They found the boozers performed worse on some thinking tests than nondrinking teens. Brain scan images showed areas of inactivity, and underdeveloped brain sections.

That much you can learn by reading

By visiting that Website, though, you won’t find out that the teens studied weren’t weekend partiers but rather teenagers pulled from treatment centers who had serious enough drinking problems to have experienced extreme withdrawal symptoms.

There are many other mitigating factors. But the main problem with the now-fashionable claim of permanent brain damage from teen drinking is that it defies common sense. So says David Hanson, emeritus professor at the State University of New York at Potsdam, a longtime researcher of college drinking and one of the leading academics questioning the “neoprohibitionist” trend of federal and state teen-drinking campaigns.

Hanson asks, if drinking by young people were causing brain damage, then why aren’t all the baby boomers idiots? Why are there no roving bands of dullards in southern Europe, where drinking from a young age is commonplace?

“We just don’t have any evidence, it seems to me, that Italians, Greeks, people from southern France or Spain, that their young people are suffering any mental deficiencies,” Hanson says. In fact, youth from those nations typically outscore students in the United States on academic tests. “The naturalistic setting doesn’t seem to support this [teen-brain conclusion], and research even doesn’t seem to support it to me.”

What Hanson and likeminded scholars object to in the new antidrinking campaigns is the hype. It’s hard to present the subtleties of science on the side of a garbage truck.

A Little Calm, Please
When you click on, you can read about drinking studies taken directly from material presented to states by federal health authorities. You won’t learn that the same drinking teenage rats who showed slow thinking skills had better hand-eye coordination, better balance, quicker reaction time and were less likely to pass out than adult rats after the same number of drinks.

“Alcohol effects the teen brain differently,” ParentsEmpowered says. True, but in some cases, not as much.

The site also won’t tell you what happens when rats stop drinking: Their damaged brains repair themselves. A 2004 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience determined brain development slows in drinking rats but found a “huge burst” of new brain cell development once the teen rats sober up.

The teen brain—rat or human—is very plastic. Similar repair functions appear to occur in human teens. Studies by the San Diego researchers whose brain scans appear on the ParentsEmpowered site found that while some parts of hard-drinking teen brains showed less scan activity, other brain sections showed more activity. It appeared drinking teen brains were able to rewire themselves, recruiting unusual sections to help with tasks normally done by the portions suppressed by alcohol. And it has long been known that brains of adult alcoholics can repair themselves when drinking stops.

The bottom line is this: The kids the San Diego researchers pulled from the drunk tank who stayed sober and were tested eight years later performed as well on thinking tests as their peers who had never touched a drop.

To some, this embrace of new teen-brain research appears to be a recipe for prohibition. Hanson notes it is official federal government policy to decrease alcohol consumption. He complains the result has been a takeover of research by anti-alcohol-activist groups with a vested interest in exaggerating the problem.

“You can’t keep raising money for saving bald eagles if people understand they are coming back,” he says. But hyping the problem only serves to make teens think that “everybody is doing it,” Hanson says.

This summer, the Utah Legislature’s higher-education committee was presented with college-drinking statistics from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (NCASA), an outfit that has been repeatedly charged with publicizing misleading data by the Statistical Assessment Service at George Mason University. The research watchdog organization cheekily refers to NCASA as the “Center for Abuse of Statistical Analysis.”

NCASA’s report trumpeted a 16 percent increase—between 1993 and 2005—in students who had “binged” three times in two weeks and said about 40 percent of college students were now bingers. Lawmakers weren’t told that the same survey found college-drinking rates hadn’t changed during the time period surveyed.

Whether to be alarmed by the persistence of binge drinking among surveyed teens and college students—the Spring 2006 National College Health Survey from the American College Health Association finds a smaller percentage (24 percent) binge—depends on your definition of “binge.”

“One man’s binge is another man’s dinner party,” Hanson says. The definition now used almost universally was developed by the Harvard School of Public Health for its annual college drinking survey: five drinks during an evening for men, or four drinks for women.

If that doesn’t sound like a lot to you, then you won’t be surprised by results of a 2001 study published in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. It found 50 percent of so-called “binge” drinkers were, in fact, stone-cold sober, having failed to reach the .08 percent blood-alcohol limit. explains the campaign started because state leaders determined “underage drinking was a huge problem in Utah.” The phrase might cause readers to believe that underage drinking was a huge problem in Utah. It isn’t. As Doug Murakami, director of alcohol education at the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control notes, Utah has long had the lowest rates of teen drinking in the nation, and there is no current evidence to suggest that is changing. Still, he said, some Utah teens are drinking, and the new brain research mandates they be warned to stop.

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.”
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