Smart Recovery News & Views, Spring, 2002, pp. 8-9
Moral Entrepreneurs and Truth
Stanton Peele, Ph.D.
Member SMART Recovery® International Advisory Council
The principal statistic in a new report on drinking by American youths was wrong. "Teen Tipplers," issued on February 26th by Columbia University's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), claimed that underage drinkers consumed a quarter of the nation's alcohol.
CASA president, Joseph A. Califano, Jr., featured this figure as he asserted that "underage drinking has reached epidemic proportions in America." In fact, the government data that CASA was citing reported that 12-20 year-olds consume about 11 percent of the nation's alcohol. CASA made the elementary error of not considering that the survey oversampled young respondents by about 2-1.
One must consider the nature of CASA's mission in understanding this error. CASA is not a research organizationnot one of the statistics concerning teen drinking that it reported was new or the result of its own research. Rather, CASA is a public health interest organization, one that seeks to convince Americans of the dangers of drugs and alcohol.
As such, its mission is to alarm Americans about these substances and the consequences of their misuse. Of course, at any given time, conceivably these dangers might be less serious than supposed. But this could hardly be the theme of a CASA document.
The CASA data on youthful drinking came from two prior government surveysthe 2000 Youth Risk Behavior Survey of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in 1998.
Among the claims and statistics featured by CASA and Califano was that girls were narrowing the gap in drinking with boys. Included in this confluence of the genders, the report asserted, was the frequency of binge drinking.
Since CASA relied on data from the Household Survey, which is conducted periodically, it is possible to make direct comparisons of the binge drinking figures over the years. In fact, compared with a decade earlier, the 1998 Household Survey showed that binge drinking had dropped for 12-17 year olds. The more recent study found that about 6.5 percent of girls and 8.5 percent of boys 12 to 17 had five or more drinks at one sitting within the last 30 days, compared with figures of 11 percent for girls and about 19 percent for boys ten years earlier.
The news in the CASA report was actually that the number of young teens who engaged in such intensive drinking bouts had been cut in half! Thus, the CASA report had to convince Americans of an epidemic in problem drinking among American teens when the best indicator of such problems had declined dramatically.
Of course, when two larger figures are reduced, they will be closer together (the difference between 10 and 20 percent is twice that between 5 and 10 percent). And this, predictably, is what CASA emphasized.
Why does one get the feeling that CASA is marketing its numbersnot unlike the alcohol industry it attacks? Because, in a broader sense, it is a marketing operation, one that promotes its view of the world.
In order to make its points, like many commercial ventures, CASA seems willing to twist information. While confessing at its web site what might be considered the embarrassing discovery that, "by an oversight, CASA did not make the adjustment for over sampling in the Household Survey," CASA nonetheless defended its figure, saying that children could very well underestimate their drinking to interviewers.
Of course, if this is the case, then the validity of all the numbers in their report is undercut. Instead of questioning their whole enterprise, however, CASA sought to use the new uncertainty it had discovered in its data to advantage. The organization determined on re-evaluation that the Household Survey figure of 11 percent for the proportion of alcohol consumed by teens, which it had misstated as 25 percent, could actually be as high as 30 percent!
As we can see, commercial enterprises have no leg up on moral entrepreneurs in the lengths they may go to make their points.