- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 1, 2000

You're a sailor crossing the Atlantic on a solo crossing. The Global Positioning System is broken, as are your wireless satellite e-mail and phone. The maps have been washed overboard. Clouds hide the North Star. Sharks are following, sensing dinner. Now you know what it must be like to be 10, or 12 or 16 years old today.

Adults, who are supposed to be the navigational tools for young people, are walking off the job, shutting down their guidance systems, seemingly everywhere we look. The American Bar Association (ABA) promotes needle exchange despite science that says it doesn't work. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) tells college students that drinking beer is healthier, more socially responsible than drinking milk. Professional athletes, even college athletes, fill the sports pages with stories of criminal or unethical behavior. Television shows make promiscuous sex, smoking and drinking look glamorous and risk-free.

The ABA is just the latest respected institution to choose a political agenda in direct contradiction of the scientific evidence at great cost to kids. They claim needle exchange programs reduce HIV transmission. They claim these programs don't increase drug use. They suggest that people hooked on heroin and cocaine are responsible adults who won't share needles. They are absolutely wrong. But that, and the fact that they are sending a dangerous message to young people, doesn't seem to matter to the ABA.

A comprehensive review of published studies fails to support the supposed success of needle exchange programs in preventing HIV transmission. Indeed, the largest studies conducted to date show just the opposite. In Montreal, 1,600 addicts participating in the needle exchange program were tested every six months for, on average, 22 months. Participants were found to be sharing needles. They were also 3 times likelier to become infected with HIV as addicts not in the program, the Reader's Digest reports.

Likewise, a study in Vancouver of more than 1,000 needle exchangers, published in the journal AIDS, found participating in the program was a predictor, along with other variables, for a positive HIV test.

Is it asking too much of the adults setting policies to take a moment and ponder what message they are sending young people? Clearly nobody at the ABA did so. Clearly nobody at PETA did so. They launched an advertising campaign targeting college students, saying beer is healthier than milk and suggesting they don't drink milk because that means cows have to be milked, and, PETA says, cows don't seem to like being milked. That would be laughable, if it weren't so darn dangerous.

Drinking milk isn't connected to other risk behaviors, such as sexual activity, drugs, smoking and violence. Young people aren't killed in car crashes because the driver drank too much milk. Alcohol can kill college students. Milk can't. It's illegal for most college students to drink beer. It's legal to drink milk. And yet, there we saw it: posters all over college campuses asking, "Got Beer?"

If it were just that these actions by the ABA and PETA were unique, poorly conceived ideas, I wouldn't be quite so upset. Unfortunately, they are just two more examples of the disturbing trend of adults abdicating responsibility to youth. Open the sports pages, go to the movies, or simply turn on the television in your living room for further proof.

Story No. 1 in the sports section is as likely to be another account of a professional athlete being suspended for drug abuse, arrested for battering his wife or even jailed on suspicion of murder as it is a story about an actual game. Given the behavior of many athletes, parents often have to monitor ESPN's SportsCenter as if it were HBO's "The Sopranos." Yet the sports leagues themselves usually respond with a slap on the wrist and a welcome back after an obligatory suspension. In the case of hateful Atlanta pitcher John Rocker, the response was a little bit of counseling.

Meanwhile, Hollywood makes risk-taking behavior look cool. A recent study found that prime-time television rarely portrays the real life consequences of unhealthy behavior, such as the all-too-common occurrence of contracting a dangerous sexually transmitted infection as a teen-ager.

It all adds up to a world of adults who don't understand the ramifications of their actions, who are giving young people permission to participate in unhealthy behaviors that can permanently scar their futures. We adults need to realize the important responsibility we have as role models. Like it or not, we are the compass and the navigational system young people must have to steer successfully into adulthood.

When kids look around, it is enough to make them ask, Where are the adults when we need them?

Shepherd Smith is founder and president of the Institute for Youth Development.

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