IN FEBRUARY, COLUMBIA University's Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) released the policy wonk equivalent of a Girls Gone Wild spring break video. Teen Tipplers: America's Underage Drinking Epidemic promised a salacious expose of youth gone very, very bad. The most ballyhooed factoid in the widely covered report, available online at www.casacolumbia.org, certainly seemed to deliver the goods; CASA declared that zit-faced lushes between the ages of 12 and 20 consume a whopping 25 percent of all alcohol sold in this sweet land of libertines.
"Drinking is teen America's fatal attraction....a deadly round of Russian roulette," claimed CASA's head honcho, Joseph A. Califano Jr., in the casually apocalyptic and cliche-ridden phraseology favored by our public policy puritans. You only had to wonder how he restrained himself from denouncing teens and booze as the most terrifying twosome since Frankenstein met the Wolf Man.
There was just one problem with Teen Tripplers' headline-grabbing finding: It was about as legit as Jenna Bush's ID card. How CASA and its journalistic designated driver, The New York Times, handled the screw up reveals a lot about America's ongoing war between wets and drys. Although Prohibition was repealed almost 70 years ago, the prohibitionist mind-set was not. It's alive and well, and looking to turn any drop of liquor into a sign of pathology.
The day after Teen Tipplers hit the news, CASA grudgingly admitted that the proper estimate for the underage share of alcohol consumption is 11.4 percent, not 25 percent. The group's mistake stemmed from a failure to adjust for over sampling of younger drinkers in the federal government's National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. Caught in an obvious and undeniable mathematical mistake, CASA argued like a late-night drunk that really, man, no, really, man, it was still absolutely right in its original conclusion.
"It's very unfortunate," CASA's vice president and director of policy research, Sue Foster, told the Times. "We didn't reweight the data. But we think the 11.4 percent number is way too low, since there's so much underreporting."
The Times headlined...