- The Washington Times - Friday, March 1, 2002

In physics, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. But in American politics, over-reaction seems much more commonplace. A few isolated incidents, a couple of high-profile random acts and suddenly there's an "epidemic" or "crisis" we never noticed before, and which naturally requires our immediate attention and a new federal program. The latest voguish "epidemic"? Underage and so-called binge drinking.

Joseph Califano, the Carter-era secretary of health, education and welfare, and an outfit he presides over called the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse issued frantic "clarion calls" earlier this week for "national mobilization" to combat what they say is the pickling of American youth. Mr. Califano and his little group initially claimed that underage drinkers account for 25 percent of all alcohol consumption in the United States each year. The group also said that gulp 81 percent of high school students have sampled rum or beer at some point although how this fact equates with rampant boozing is not fully elucidated.

And speaking of elucidation, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States did some actual math based on Mr. Califano's numbers and found that for the 25 percent figure to be valid, "each American teen-ager and young adult who illegally drinks alcohol would have to consume 120 drinks per month," or the equivalent of four drinks per day, every day. W.C. Fields would be proud. But if that all seems a tick improbable to you, imagine how improbable it must seem to the parents of all these young tipplers, who somehow manage to go about their daily lives fairly schnockered without any untoward symptoms. In other words, no one seems to notice that pretty much all the kids are drunk. "It looks like Mr. Califano (and his group) have adopted Enron's accounting practices," suggested Phil Lynch, a spokesman for the company that produces Jack Daniels whiskey. The Distilled Spirits Council bluntly called the claims "flat out wrong."

Mr. Califano and his National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse eventually admitted their mathematical errors. While some young people do indeed misuse alcohol and binge-drinking is a problem for some children, there is no all-encompassing "crisis" as portrayed by Mr. Califano, and no need for a "clarion call," let alone "national mobilization." Mr. Califano, it seems, is an ex-bureaucrat in search of a mission and there's nothing more dangerous than a Don Quixote looking for windmills to tilt at.

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