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A fate worse than hangover for underage drinkers
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire


November 09, 2005

WASHINGTON - Heavy or even moderate alcohol drinking during adolescence can impair learning and memory and even interfere with physical development, according to a new report.

The report by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism doesn't bode well for the 12 percent of eighth-graders, 22 percent of 10th-graders and 28 percent of 12th-graders who reported binge drinking in a survey.




A recent study of 17-year-olds found structural differences in the brains of those who were alcohol dependent and those who were not. Specifically, the hippocampus - important in learning and memory - was smaller among the drinkers.

Research also showed that alcohol can interfere with physical development. Drinking can lower estrogen, testosterone, growth hormone and bone density in humans, and testing in rats showed delayed puberty, shorter limb lengths, reduced bone growth and altered reproductive system maturation.

But Dr. Ronald Dahl of the University of Pittsburgh noted that not all adolescents who drink are bound to have those problems.

"Just because you get a couple of bad sunburns when you're a kid doesn't mean you're fated to get skin cancer," he said.

Other data were more promising at a conference last week attended by representatives from all 50 states, doctors and anti-alcohol crusaders. In a comparison of the United States and 35 other countries, mostly in Europe, U.S. teens were found to drink less frequently than teens in 34 of them.

Also, in the U.S., alcohol-related traffic fatalities decreased 20 percent from 1982 to 2003, a total of 9,160 fewer deaths, despite more drivers.

However, there were still more than 17,000 fatalities in 2003, and 10 percent of 16- to 17-year-olds in 2004 reported driving drunk.

To curb underage drinking, most who spoke - including Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt and Surgeon General Richard Carmona - suggested a cooperative approach among all levels of government and other groups.

Four states, including Ohio, shared their formulas for success at the conference. Compared to other states, Ohio has among the smallest percentages of drinkers ages 12 to 17.

"If we start at the high school level, we miss the mark," said Marci Seidel, Ohio first lady Hope Taft's chief of staff. Seidel and others noted that parents begin to concede influence to their children's peers once they become teens.

Seidel helped Taft lead the Ohio campaign. She attributed the state's success mostly to basic efforts, such as educating law enforcement and garnering private support.

"In Ohio, it's very comprehensive," she said. "We cast the net far and wide."

Ohio is also one of 32 states that have social host laws, which can penalize adults for injury-causing crashes involving minors to whom they serve alcohol.

John Schulenberg, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, suggested that parents talk to their children when they're young or teach them responsibility by giving them an occasional drink at home, especially because risk taking is a "developmental phenomenon." The latter idea proved to be contentious among the audience.

Harold Holder, a researcher at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, said adults should be targeted as well.

"Just doing underage drinking isn't a sufficient protection," he said. "It's pretty duplicitous if we only focus on young people."

Leavitt unveiled a new public service announcement, to air soon, in which a pre-teen stands up at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and tells the glum congregation that he will be an alcoholic within a few years. "The thing is, my parents won't even see it coming," he says.

Dr. Sandra Brown of the University of California, San Diego, said that alcohol advertising - on which more than $1 billion is spent yearly - should be toned down.


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