Dr. Antonia C. Novello, the U.S. surgeon general, says she doesn't want to be "the prohibition lady." She just wants America's young people and their parents to digest the facts about underage drinking.
If they don't, the country may not have a labor force by the year 2013, she warned more than 300 students, parents and doctors last night at Maryvale Preparatory School, a private Catholic school in Brooklandville for girls 11 to 18.
Almost 5 million teen-agers are considered serious drinkers, Novello said, rattling off some grim statistics that also revealed that:
* Almost half a million adolescents drink every day.
* Thirty-three percent of high school students and 28 percent of eighth-graders drink in binges of at least five drinks in a row.
* Forty percent of all deaths among adolescents are due to car crashes.
* More than 3,000 young people died last year in alcohol-related car crashes.
"Underage drinking is something I want to do something about," said Novello, a pediatrician who has traveled to all but six of the nation's states in the last 14 months crusading against teen-age drinking.
"I have three years left in my term of office to accomplish this. I'm trying to enlist you so we can help each other. This has to be a thing between kids, parents, institutions and the beverage industry."
Novello, 46, the first woman to become a U.S. surgeon general, said she has even quizzed fourth-graders about their drinking habits. "When I asked one fourth grade class of 50 children how many of them drank beer, 50 percent of the kids put their hands up," she said.
Referring to the underage drinking trends, she said, "Kids -- and even some parents -- feel it is OK to do this because they do not believe that beer is alcohol. But a can of beer is the equivalent to one shot of vodka or one wine cooler."
She said the data show that while college students are more prone to excessive drinking, "the greatest majority of kids who come to college already are alcoholic in high school."
Drinking is happening in all colleges throughout the country and in most high schools, said the surgeon general, who added, "the responsibility should not be the kids' alone."
Novello said teen-agers have told her they drink because they see their parents drink and because of peer pressure. She said that when parents talk to their underage kids about drinking, "they do it with a drink in their hand" and when the kids don't have a drink in their hand, "they feel they don't belong."
"Kids today have pressures we did not have," she said. "Their parents are working and have no time to talk to them, kids have no self-esteem and television is their teacher.
"They need someone to talk to, not a buddy, but a friend, an advocate, a mentor."
Novello urged school health clinics to have an open-door policy so teens can drop in and talk "because they have lots of questions."
She cited one program in the Midwest that is highly successful in keeping kids dry.
"The lure is a free college education if you are dry and the participation is 95 percent," she said. The program is run by Ewing Kauffman, a business man who owns the Kansas City Royals baseball team. The community backs Kauffman by refusing to serve liquor to anyone under 21.
Novello reminded parents that "a hug today lets your child know you care." Turning to her teen audience, she said, "Don't let a stupid accident spoil your life or a stupid drink diminish your future."
Maryvale has a long-standing strict rule prohibiting the possession or distribution of alcohol on the school grounds, said Sister Shawn, the principal.
Recently, however, the school reluctantly had to enforce the regulation for the first time, according to other school officials.
Two 16-year-old students were expelled after officials found six cases of beer in the car that had transported the girls and their dates to a school dance. The beer reportedly was for a post-dance party off school property.