The surgeon general of the United States came to Baltimore County yesterday to dispel a myth that she said is endangering the health of young people across the country.
"Kids," said Dr. Antonia C. Novello, "do not believe that beer is an alcoholic beverage."
The message she preached to a group of more than 300 at Maryvale Preparatory School in Brooklandville is one that the beer industry isn't happy with, Dr. Novello said.
Studies have indicated that at least 33 percent of all high school teens don't just drink occasionally -- they drink in binges, Dr. Novello said. "That means they drink one after the other, and at least five," she said to the rapt audience of students, parents and educators.
At least 24 percent of eighth-grade students are drinking in binges, she said.
And when she and her staff go around the country talking to young people, the teens often dismiss their drinking by saying, "It's only beer," according to Dr. Novello.
Her message to underaged drinkers: "You are just selecting what way you want to become an alcoholic. Whether it's beer, wine, wine cooler or hard liquor."
Dr. Novello appeared at the Roman Catholic girls' school at the invitation of its alumni association. She said underaged drinking is something she feels very strongly about.
She does not want to be known as the "prohibition lady," but does want young people to know the danger to their health, she said, noting, "My thing is awareness."
Alcohol has much to do with teen violence, automobile accidents and teen pregnancy, she said.
Dr. Novello told the parents in the audience that they must take responsibility as role models, encourage their children to confide in an adult and work toward creating a society where it's OK to stand up to peer pressure.
"This problem is not little and it will take over unless we get control," she said. The government's goal is a marked decrease in underage drinking by the year 2000, she said.
According to a small group of Maryvale students who were asked how prevalent alcohol and drugs are among their peers, there is much work to be done.
"Usually, it's not a party unless it's there," said Jennifer Bass, 18, describing how many of her peers accept both alcohol and drugs. "I think it's a very big problem, and I don't know how it can be resolved."
Ruba Raikar, 17, said many teens feel that experimenting with alcohol and drugs is part of the growing-up experience. "It's like a stage," she said. "They think it's something they have to go through."