As my editors will tell you, I tend to get distracted. I will start to write an article about, say, New Zealand, and find myself 500 words later in Greenland, with no way to get back. So it is not so surprising that I am only now dealing with the feverish reaction I got to column I wrote 10 months ago, "Why You Shouldn't Teach Moderate Drinking".
Teenage drinking -- what I think is the most damaging social ill affecting American high schools -- is still with us, and I was wrong to put off a follow-up column for so long. The group of parents and educators that I discussed in that column, the Community of Concern is still working on the issue, but my first priority is to acknowledge the many messages I received from readers who thought the group's hard-line approach was overblown, illogical and counterproductive.
_____About the Author_____
Jay Mathews, a Washington Post education reporter, writes a weekly Class Struggle column exclusively for washingtonpost.com. He also covers school issues in a quarterly column for The Post Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
In the column I told the story of Mimi Fleury, a Chevy Chase parent who began to investigate the problem when the headmaster of her sons' school asked her to. Eventually she produced, with the help of many parents, educators and health experts, a 28-page booklet that has become an underground sensation.
Nearly a million copies of the booklet, "A Parent's Guide For the Prevention of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drug Use," have been distributed at schools around the country, and the demand is still growing despite almost no publicity. It puts heavy emphasis on a National Institutes of Health study that indicates 40 percent of people who are drinking before age 15 become alcoholics at some point in their lives. It contradicts the many parents who think letting 14-year-olds drink in their basement, where they can keep an eye on them, is a responsible way to prepare them for a world soaked in alcohol. The booklet says: "'Learning how to drink' during adolescence is not a 'rite of passage' or a 'part of growing up'. When teens are allowed to drink at home, they are more likely to use alcohol and other drugs outside the home AND are at risk to develop serious behavioral and health problems related to substance use."
Many readers praised the column and said they would get the booklet. "My son is a senior," said Barbara J. Van Esler, an accountant in St. Louis, "and I have been amazed during the past few weeks of conversations with other parents just how many allowed their kids to go on unsupervised trips to Cancun over spring break, knowing full well that the primary intent was to drink and party."
Josh Spiegel, an undergraduate at Arizona State University, described himself as "a still underage guy who's being pressured consistently to drink," and although he has resisted the pressure, wishes there were more efforts to adjust this youthful mindset.
But at least as many readers objected to the Community of Concern's disdain for parents who tried to teach their children to drink responsibly. "I agree that being a role model is paramount, but when it comes to alcohol abuse, I'm not sure that abstinence is the only, or even the most effective, defense," said Rick Hughes of Alexandria.
"I feel that your teetotaling advocacy article is inconsistent at best and naïve at worse," said David Harkins of Madison, Wis. "If adolescents emulate the behavior of their parents -- a legitimate point that you make -- then why shouldn't children of moderate drinkers tend to become moderate drinkers without experiencing the ill effects of alcohol abuse?"
Many were particularly resentful of my own stance as a confirmed non-drinker with Prohibitionist tendencies. I thought confessing my extremist views would get me points for candor, but I was wrong.
"Your whiny teetotaler attitude shines through and damages the credibility of your message," said Lori Brown of Baltimore. "Should young teens drink? No, of course not. Does moderate drinking among 17 and 18 year olds presage the end of civilization? I don't think so."
"Letting your kids have a beer during Sunday football, a glass of wine with dinner, perhaps an aperitif beforehand (a lost art), or a beer at a baseball game (truly one of life's greatest pleasures) shows a teen how to appreciate life without overindulging," said Cathleen Glover of Washington, D.C. "Humanity has been drinking alcohol for ages. It has been used as a digestive, and it can be good for you."
One of my best informed critics, Brian O'Rourke, was a graduate of Georgetown Preparatory School, where Fleury began the Community of Concern. He had worked with young people and had many good questions about the group's arguments and research. He started with the NIH study saying 40 percent of early teen drinkers become alcoholics.
"First," he said, "does that number control for people at high risk of alcoholism? There are genetic and family behavioral markers that substantially increase risks of alcoholism. . . . Second, on what population is that data predicated? Is it controlled for race or economic factors? Presence or absence of one or both parents in the home? Is it limited to American teens? Does it contrast or agree with, say, Europe, where children are often given dilute wine at very young ages?"
O'Rourke notes the many studies, including one that recently made the front page of The Post, say a drink or two a day is good, particularly for over-the-hill types like me. And he shares the view of many readers, based on personal observation, that college freshmen without previous experience with alcohol are more likely to overdo it.
I sent O'Rourke's questions to Wilkie A. Wilson, professor of pharmacology at Duke and one of the scientists who helped the Community of Concern produce the booklet. Wilson said the NIH study does need to be augmented.
"Right now all we know is that most addictive behavior is acquired when people are younger than the early twenties. We really do not know why," he said. "The NIH says that about 60 percent of becoming an alcoholic is genetic -- the rest is environmental. Obviously one would never become an alcoholic if one were never exposed to alcohol. We are not yet ready to identify the high risk group, except by family history."
The NIH study says the association of early drinking and alcoholism "reflects, at least in part, a common underlying vulnerability to disinhibitory behavior," according to another study quoted by Wilson. Whether early drinking directly influences risk of adult alcoholism remains unclear.
"The big question is this," Wilson said. "What if you take a perfectly normal person (whatever that means) and expose that person to alcohol during adolescence? Is there a greater chance that that person will become alcoholic?"
He said we don't have the answer to the question, but among the most relevant recent research is a study showing that the human brain is still developing as people age into their twenties, and that the last parts to be fully wired are the frontal lobes, which provide good judgment and inhibit inappropriate behavior. Other research suggests that adolescents can drink more than adults can before falling asleep, thus raising the chances of misbehavior and alcohol poisoning in the young. And there is a small study with rats that suggests alcohol during adolescence locks in that capacity to drink to excess.
As for the seemingly harmless use of alcohol by European children, Wilson said the effects are different in different parts of that continent. Southern Europe seems to show the benign effects suggested by O'Rourke, "but in other countries with a liberal drinking policy for kids there is a horrendous level of consumption," Wilson said.
We may all know huge college drinkers who did not touch a drop in high school, he said, but they are not typical. "Nationally, age of onset and use of alcohol precollege predicts college drinking," he said.
The health benefits of very moderate drinking are real, Wilson said. His prescription: "one drink a day for women, two for men."
My own doctor is dubious about that research, and suggests I can get the same boost from grape juice, which I strongly prefer. As with many other issues in this area, we need more research.
But it can only be good to get more information on the destructive effects of binge drinking to more young people and their families, as the Community of Concern and many other organizations are trying to do.
I was impressed, for instance, by an e-mail from David Copithorne, chief marketing officer of a for-profit group, Outside the Classroom, working to curb alcohol abuse in high schools and colleges. They have designed a 90-minute, online course called AlcoholEdu that seems to reduce the level of dangerous partying on some campuses, and one private high school, Belmont Hill in the Boston area, found a way to get every student to soak up that information.
The school promised an extra day off over the Christmas holidays if everyone took the course. The incentive worked, and the long-term benefits for those potential party animals are likely to be significant. We cannot be sure if starting to drink early is what makes alcoholics, but drinking to excess is not good for anyone, and whatever we can do to imbed that concept in young minds is worth the time, even an extra winter holiday.