The Underage Drinking Enforcement Training Center is funded by American taxpayers who have a right to expect it to produce accurate and unbiased publications. Unfortunately, the Center uses its tax-supported budget to produce a continuing deluge of highly biased and misleading publications, presentations and communications
A recent example illustrates the problem. In an issue of Resource Alert, the Center reports on two studies. One is a study of American teenagers that found parents strongly influence their children‘s drinking decisions. That’s not a surprising finding because it’s consistent with many other studies. What is surprising is the Center’s biased and misleading report of the study.
The Center’s report implies that parents who served their children alcohol caused them to binge drink. The Center ignored the important fact that teenagers who reported drinking alcohol with their parents were less likely than others to have either consumed alcohol or abused it in recent weeks! 1
Drinking alcohol with parents “may help teach them responsible drinking habits or extinguish some of the ‘novelty’ or ‘excitement’ of drinking” according to senior researcher Dr. Kristie Long Foley of the School of Medicine at Wake Forest University. Dr. Foley describes drinking with parents as a “protective” behavior. 2
All of that was completely missing from the Center’s clearly biased and misleading report of the research and its implications. The Center betrays the trust of the American taxpayer.
The finding that drinking with parents is a protective behavior is not surprising. Those societies and cultural groups with very high rates of drinking but very low rates of alcohol-related problems have certain common keys to success. One such protective key is that in such groups young people learn about moderate drinking from their parents and they do so from an early age.
But don’t expect to ever hear any of these facts from the Underage Drinking Enforcement Training Center because they conflict with its predetermined ideology.
In reporting in the second study, the Center clearly implies that drinking at an earlier age causes later drinking problems in adulthood. It completely ignores the caution made by the lead investigator of the study, who emphasized that “the finding of higher and significant correlations between age at first drink and lifetime drinking issues probably reflects the operation of a variety of variables contributing to problems drinking, rather than a direct causal relationship between the age at first drink and later problems.” In other words, the lead investigator warns against the conclusion that the Center chose to present.
The National Institute on Alcohol abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has also emphasized that such correlations don’t demonstrate causality. That’s because so much evidence indicates that individuals with certain personality characteristics, such as sensation seeking, are more likely to experience drinking problems. But they’re also more likely to drink at an early age, engage in risky sex, drive recklessly, gamble, and sky dive.
In the words of the federal NIAAA,
It is not clear whether starting to drink at an early age actually causes alcoholism or whether it simply indicates an existing vulnerability to alcohol use disorders. For example, both early drinking and alcoholism have been linked to personality characteristics such as strong tendencies to act impulsively and to seek out new experiences and sensations. Some evidence indicates that genetic factorsmay contribute to the relationship between early drinking and subsequent alcoholism. 3 For more see endnote #3 in Readings and References.
Recent research has found that
problems seen in adulthood among early drinkers existed prior to their taking that first drink, which suggests that developmental processes were already disrupted prior to that first drink. Thus, an early AFD (age at first drink)is more likely a 'symptom' of an underlying vulnerability of disinhibitory processes rather than a 'cause' of increased rates of alcoholism. 4
So preventing early consumption of alcohol would probably not have any impact on later drinking behaviors. But that’s exactly what the Underage Drinking Enforcement Training Center implies, ignoring federal government cautions to the contrary.
Although undesirable, such bias and distortion is permissible on the part of private activist organizations. However, it is totally unacceptable by a federally funded agency. If truth in advertising applied, the organization would have to be re-named the Underage Drinking Enforcement Indoctrination Center.
Federally funded research continues to seriously question whether early age of first drink has any effect upon later alcohol dependence or alcohol-related problems. McGue, M., et al. Origins and Consequences of Age at First Drink. I. Associations with Substance-Use Disorders, Disinhibitory Behavior and Psychopathology, and P3 Amplitude. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. 25(8): 1156-1165, August 2001. The authors found that “AFD (age at first drink) is not specifically associated with alcoholism but rather is correlated with a broad range of indicators of disinhibited behavior and psychopathology. Moreover, individuals who first drink at a relatively early age manifest elevated rates of disinhibitory behavior and psychopathology before they first try alcohol. Taken together, these findings suggest that the association of AFD with alcoholism reflects, at least in part, a common underlying vulnerability to disinhibitory behavior. Whether an early AFD directly influences risk of adult alcoholism remains unclear.” They also report that “problems seen in adulthood among early drinkers existed prior to their taking that first drink, which suggests that developmental processes were already disrupted prior to that first drink. Thus, an early AFD is more likely a 'symptom' of an underlying vulnerability of disinhibitory processes rather than a 'cause' of increased rates of alcoholism" (Age at First Drink: What Does It Really Mean? University of Minnesota/Virginia Commonwealth University press release, 8-14-01).
Researcher Helene White explains that
age of onset may simply be a marker of an already existing syndrome of problem behaviors (Glantz & Leshner, 2000). Studies have consistently found that early disruptive behaviors (e.g., conduct disorder) are related to later substance use and abuse, and that the onset of disruptive behaviors often occurs prior to alcohol use initiation (e.g., Costello et al., 1999). McGue and colleagues (2001b) found that those who first started drinking before age 15 compared to those who started later were at much higher risk for developing alcohol dependence as well as other drug dependence and other externalizing disorders. They argued that all of these outcomes are manifestations of disinhibitory behavior or psychopathology, and that early onset of alcohol use may reflect a vulnerability to disinhibitory behavior. Furthermore, they found that several indicators of disinhibitory behavior actually preceded age of onset. Therefore, their findings refuted a causal path from age of onset to later alcoholism. In a subsequent study, McGue and colleagues (2001a) concluded that a common inherited vulnerability model appears to explain the association of early age of onset and later alcoholism. Prescott and Kendler (1999) also showed that the association between age of onset and later alcoholism was mediated by common genetic factors and, thus, they refuted any causal association. (White, Helene. Age at First Consumption and Future Alcohol- Related Problems. Invited Opinion. International Center for Alcohol Policies, n.d.