Prominent Anti-Drug Organization Criticized by Federal Agency for Bogus Underage Alcohol Findings 3/1/02

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The Center for Alcohol and Substance Abuse (CASA), long criticized by many observers for bogus science and sensationalism, began the week trumpeting its new study on teen drinking and its headline-grabbing finding that underage drinkers account for 25% of all alcohol consumed in the US. But CASA this time found itself targeted by an unlikely critic -- the federal government -- in the form of the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration.

The CASA report, "Teen Tipplers: America's Underage Drinking Epidemic," attempted to emphasize CASA's case that teen drinking is on the increase by leading with the alcohol consumption figure. The CASA press release began, "Alcohol is far and away the top drug of abuse by America's teens. Children under the age of 21 drink 25 percent of the alcohol consumed in the US." (Linger for a moment over the use of the word "children" to describe people under 21. It is a nice rhetorical move to conflate images of preschoolers with the reality of college students, members of the armed forces, and young married couples.)

Media outlets across the country ran with the figure, as CASA no doubt intended. The only problem was that the media attention caught the attention of the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), which very, very discreetly and politely shot CASA's figure out of the sky. In a press release later the same day as the CASA findings were announced, SAMSHA noted: "An analysis by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) finds that in 1998 underage drinkers accounted for approximately 11.4 percent of all the alcohol consumed in the US. Regardless of any discrepancies between our analysis of the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse data and that of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA), any alcohol use before age 21 is unacceptable and against the law."

By Thursday, the New York Times had reported the error, and CASA was reduced to back-tracking and wild spinning. The 25% figure was the result of statistical error, the Times reported and CASA admitted. CASA had oversampled the 12-20 age group in its study to ensure a large enough sample to make its data statistically valid, but failed to adjust the data to account for the oversampling.

"It's very unfortunate," said Sue Foster, the center's vice president and director of policy research. "We didn't re-weight the data. But we think the 11.4% number is way too low, since there's so much underreporting," she claimed.

With its back against the wall, CASA went on the offensive, challenging the very numbers it had used in calculating its findings. "The Household Survey [used by CASA] underestimates the level of alcohol consumption because it is self-reported data and because it is taken in households where parents give permission for the interview and are in the next room," a CASA press release argued. "The survey drinking numbers are based on a typical day's drinks and do not account for binge drinking," CASA added. And, as the clincher: "No one under 12 is included."

Then, taking the dictum that the best defense is a good offense to extremes, CASA boldly suggested that its 25% figure could be understating the problem. "Adjusting for these facts could raise the estimate to 30% or more," the press release claimed. "CASA's estimate is that underage drinkers consume 25% of the alcohol consumed in the US. But whether children and teens drink 15, 25 or 30% of the alcohol consumed, the reality is that America has an underage drinking epidemic and alcohol is by far the drug most used by children and teens and poses the greatest threat to their well-being."

CASA, headed by former Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph Califano, has long been criticized for suspect studies that are never subjected to peer review. Among CASA's themes has been spreading the "gateway drug" myth; inflating the costs of substance abuse (such as in last January's "Shoveling Up: The Impact of Substance Abuse on State Budgets," which, like the recent federal report on the costs of drug abuse ( included the costs of enforcing drug prohibition in the costs of "drug abuse"; and exaggerating the dangers of marijuana use, such as in their 1999's "Non-Medical Marijuana: Rite of Passage or Russian Roulette?" in which Califano and his crew warned that "legalization or decriminalization of non-medical marijuana would pose a serious threat to millions of America's children," and a Califano op-ed declaring "Marijuana -- It's a Hard Drug." The 1999 report noted large numbers of teenagers in treatment for marijuana use, but failed to distinguish between those admitted voluntarily and those in treatment under court orders, nor to acknowledge the role of the overwrought application of coerced treatment to teenage marijuana use.

In the wake of an embarrassing slap-down by the feds, CASA's PR flacks are spinning like a drunken teenager trying to do damage control in the media. This may not be a shining example for scientists, children, or students at their institution of affiliation, Columbia University, but it is a useful formula for propagandists: First, hugely exaggerate. If caught, admit to your methodological error, but claim you really erred on the side of caution. Then, divert attention from your error by focusing on the "real" problem (even if your errors distort and exaggerate it). Finally, continue to repeat the same lie (the study with its false claim are still prominently displayed unchanged on their home page), and hope you'll outlast your critics and people will forget it's not true.

CASA and their study and press releases are available at online.

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