"Oh, my God . . . oh, my God . . . oh, my God!"
The anguished voice on the other end of the phone might have belonged to a stunned mother being told that her teen-age son had died after overdosing on alcohol.
But it was Dr. Antonia C. Novello, the U.S. surgeon general. She was reacting yesterday to the death on Sunday of 15-year-old Brian C. Ball of Texas, who may have downed 26 shots of liquor at a $3 "all-you-can-drink" party in Salisbury on Friday. Shots of liquor were available at the party for 50 cents each.
For a year and a half, Novello -- a pediatrician and the first woman named U.S. surgeon general -- has been relentlessly crusading against underage drinking across the country. Her main concern is the drinking habits of the nation's 20.7 million seventh- through 12th-graders.
"I have never heard of anyone so young dying under such circumstances," she said in a phone interview. "The closest thing to this has been the 29-year-old man who died about a month ago in Tampa, Fla., after he had bet his two companions $100 he could drink the most Cisco."
Cisco is a fortified wine. Each quart contains the equivalent of five alcoholic drinks. Like Ball, the Florida man stopped breathing after drinking a deadly amount of alcohol. He had consumed at least three quarts of Cisco, the equivalent of 15 or more shots, "downing them one right after another," Novello said.
Ball was a Boy Scout and an honor student who lived four miles outside the small farming town of Trenton, Texas.
WBAL Radio reported yesterday that his mother, Janice H. Ball, said Friday was the first time her son had ever drunk alcohol. The Ball family was on a three-week visit with Brian's grandparents in Salisbury on the Eastern Shore.
Friday night, nurses at Peninsula General Hospital Medical Center in Salisbury found Ball lying on the ground in front of the emergency room entrance. He was unconscious and not breathing. The youth's blood alcohol level was found to be 0.37, which is lethal, experts say.
"He was probably in a coma then," said Novello. An alcohol-induced coma affects the respiratory system -- the lungs stop breathing and the patient dies, she explained.
"This child probably would never have chosen to drink if he knew he was going to die," Novello said. "It's very, very sad. But, the problem is where it has always been: availability of drinks, cheap drinks and, most importantly, kids today do not understand the consequences of drinking.
"All the kids see is the glamour. And, as long as we continue to glamorize drinking -- to stress it's fun, sexy and part of being manly -- then we are going to continue to see cases like this."
She said there is a need for law enforcement and state alcoholic beverage control agencies to tighten their operations to prevent youths from illegally purchasing alcohol. A study now under way by the Inspector General Division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services hopes to show how standardized practices across the country can be a deterrent.
"Now, in many cases, 15-year-olds who look like 20- or 21-year-olds can walk into liquor stores and get alcoholic beverages without showing IDs," Novello said.
The average youth who drinks is 16 years old, in the 10th grade and white, according to Novello. Of the students who drink, 53.8 percent are male and 46.2 percent are female.
"More than one-third of these students believe that drinking coffee, getting some fresh air or taking a cold shower will sober you up," said Novello. "More than 2.6 million students do not know that a person can die from an overdose of alcohol."
Survey of teen drinking
A survey of drinking habits of seventh- through 12th-graders by the Inspector General Division, completed in June, shows:
* 8 million students drink weekly
* 51 percent of junior and senior high school students, or 10.6 million, have had at least one drink within the past year
* 7 million students are able to walk into a store and buy alcohol
* More than 5 million students have binged, defined as drinking more than five drinks in a row
* 3 million binged within the past month; 450,000 binge at least once a week
* More than 3 million students drink alone; more than 4 million drink when they are upset; and fewer than 3 million drink because they are bored
* Junior and senior high school students drink 35 percent of all wine coolers sold in the United States and 1.1 billion cans of beer each year
* Students lack essential knowledge about alcohol and its effects.
* 9 million students get their information about alcohol from unreliable sources