20/20 Reporters Gone Wild

     Just in time for spring break, ABCs 20/20 bellied up to the bar with two stories on women and binge drinking. The March 10 edition was enough to frighten already worried parents about their college kids on holiday. But rather than emphasize personal responsibility or showing both sides of an academic debate on young women and heavy drinking, 20/20 showcased two advocates of advertising bans, leaving out a sociologist who frequently disputes the claims of proponents of bans on alcohol advertising.

     Alcohol abuse is traditionally a young man's sport, but not anymore. You're about to see staggering video of girls staggering in the street, binge drinking and paying the consequences for girls night out, co-host Elizabeth Vargas warned viewers, introducing the first of two stories focused on the ill effects of heavy drinking among young women.

     Narrating over video that could be mistaken for the cleaner portions of Girls Gone Wild, Vargas presented an unflattering picture of young women on spring break. This is the end to an all too common evening out. Young women, intoxicated. Helping each other home, Vargas complained.

     The consequences werent just a matter of head-splitting hangovers, either, Vargas warned viewers, cuing up alcohol industry critic Dr. David Jernigan of Georgetown Universitys Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) who claimed that 1,400 college students a year die as a result of alcohol use.

     But at least one sociologist disputed that notion. Dr. David Hanson of the State University of New York-Potsdam says college drinking is not as pervasive as ABC would have its viewers believe. Hanson was not consulted by 20/20 for comment but has frequently appeared as an expert in national media such at NBC, Fox News and CNN. He told the Business & Media Institute that fully 20 percent of college students abstain from alcohol all together, while the vast majority consume in moderation.

     Hanson also pointed to the 2005 Freshman Survey from the Higher Education Research Institute, which showed the incoming freshmen who frequently or occasionally drink beer is at a low of 43 percent, compared to 74 percent in 1982.

     As for the 1,400 deaths per year, Hanson said the numbers were grossly exaggerated. The SUNY-Potsdam professors Web site cited a USA Today analysis of college alcohol deaths over a five-year period. It appears that about 25 college students at four-year institutions die each year in alcohol-related incidents, a number which rises to 36 if expanded to included two-year colleges. Thats roughly 3 percent of what Jernigan claimed.

     Rather than present a policy debate, however, Vargas opted for an emotional story centered on personal testimony by the author of Smashed, Koren Zailckas, a recovering alcoholic, leaving out that Zailckas is an advocate against the alcohol industry. Her personal Web site, www.korenzailckas.com, links to anti-alcohol groups such as CAMY.

     Zailckas was quoted in an Aug. 11, 2005, Boston Globe article where the former binge drinker blamed alcopops like Smirnoff Ice for the rise in underage girls drinking. CAMY is highly critical of alcopops and their marketing campaigns. http://camy.org/research/underage2004/

     As early as April 4, 2003, Jernigan, CAMYs executive director, called for a ban on alcohol advertising on TV with more than 10 percent youth viewership. While saying he didnt care if the ban was the result of government action or was voluntary, he hinted at his preferred option by arguing that the basic interests of the industry do not overlap with public health, and theyd lose one-half of their market, were they to implement his policy suggestions.

     Jernigan again blamed marketing for underage drinking in a Jan. 2, 2006 CAMY press release commenting on a university study which he said shows alcohol ads are a contributing factor in youth drinking, and that the more alcohol ad spending there is per capita in a market, the more kids drink.

     While Vargas featured the mother of a Colorado State sophomore who died from alcohol poisoning echoing Jernigans complaint about sweetened alcoholic beverages, and a panel comprised of girls still under the legal drinking age or who admitted to underage drinking, neither parental nor personal responsibility was raised as a factor in teenage alcohol abuse.