Teen-agers account for nearly 20 percent of the alcohol consumed in the United States every year, and excessive drinking by adults accounts for an additional 30 percent, according to a new study.
"If half of all alcohol consumption is a product of misuse and abuse, we have a real problem on our hands," said epidemiologist Susan E. Foster of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, who led the study in today's Journal of the American Medical Association. "The implications are that the alcohol industry has an economic interest in both, and that interest is at odds with public health."
The industry responded quickly, charging that the new study has serious flaws in its methodology and that Foster's estimate of teen-age drinking is nearly double that reported by the government. An industry spokesman also questioned the study's definition of abuse - anyone consuming more than two drinks per day.
"Illegal underage drinking and alcohol abuse in any amount is a serious problem, but [Foster] does no one any good by repeatedly playing fast and loose with the data," said Peter H. Cressy, president and CEO of the Distilled Spirits Council, which represents industry interests.
"Is this something new? No, it is not. Is it increasing? I don't know," said Dr. Ting-Kai Li, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "I think it doesn't matter whether it is increasing or decreasing. It is an important problem that we must address."
Foster and her colleagues released a similar report a year ago that said underage drinking accounted for 25 percent of alcohol consumption. She said yesterday in an interview that the group had erred in that study, overestimating underage drinking because youths were overrepresented in the federal surveys they relied on. "We've spent the better part of a year getting it right, and we are now confident of our findings," she said.
Foster also said the team's new estimates were very conservative. The surveys that supplied the data did not include high school dropouts, young people in the military, the homeless and the institutionalized, all of whom are known to exhibit heavy alcohol consumption.
Thomas H. Maugh II writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.