Issue Update: ICCPUD’s “National Meeting of the States”

Signals Modest Action on Underage Drinking



SAMHSA and the federal Inter-Agency Coordinating Committee on Preventing Underage Drinking (ICCPUD) convened a “National Meeting of the States on Preventing Underage Alcohol Use,” on October 31 and November 1, 2005 in the nation’s capital.  Delegations of state officials appointed by the Governors gathered to hear about evidence-based strategies for combating underage drinking and consider how they might step up state efforts to reduce youth alcohol use. 

The meeting was intended to help “build a broad societal consensus on reducing underage alcohol use,” a key goal of the National Academy of Sciences 2003 report to Congress on underage drinking.  To promote this goal at the local level, SAMHSA encouraged states to plan and participate in a nation-wide Town Hall meeting event envisioned for communities around the country in March 2006.

So what did this nationwide gathering of state officials accomplish?  Some state participants – and non-profit prevention groups in attendance as observers – were disappointed by the lack of real dialogue between federal presenters and state leaders.  There was no substantive discussion of federal, state and local roles, responsibilities, and priorities for attaining progress to reduce underage drinking.  Others noted that critical, but politically sensitive policy areas – such as alcohol advertising and taxes – were all but absent from the discussion. 

Nonetheless, at least three developments from the meeting mark progress on recommendations long promoted by CSPI and member organizations of the National Alliance to Prevent Underage Drinking:

1.  Recognition of the problem at the cabinet level

(by the HHS Secretary):

Two years following the release of the landmark NAS/IOM recommendations for a national strategy to prevent underage drinking, HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt finally addressed the issue at the cabinet-level.  (See the HHS press release).  In opening remarks to conference participants, Leavitt called underage drinking “a significant national problem" and asked states to re-dedicate themselves to combating it.  Although the Secretary’s speech was delivered with little fanfare (it did not, apparently, merit highlighting on the main HHS website or even listing among the Secretary’s speeches on the site) it did put the Secretary on record in favor of doing more to reduce underage drinking.  He noted that efforts to curb underage drinking have lagged glaringly behind efforts and successes in reducing youth smoking and street drug use. 


2.  Ad Council PSAs that address harms and

confront parental complacency:

Secretary Leavitt announced the launch of a new multi-media Ad Council/SAMHSA underage drinking prevention campaign.  The modest campaign, which relies on donated media, falls far short of the full-scale paid media campaign long advocated by the prevention community and envisioned by the NAS/IOM report.  The campaign portrays the risks of future addiction and other harms associated with early drinking and urges parents to “start talking before they start drinking.”  The campaign will include television, radio, and print ads, as well as web banners (Click here to view the TV spots). 

The theme of parents talking to their children about alcohol is nothing new.  It has long been a favorite of industry-sponsored “prevention” ads, as it places the responsibility on parents for educating their kids about alcohol and deflects attention from the industry’s role in massively promoting drinking in ways that appeal to young people.  Nonetheless, it adopts the NAS/IOM report’s recommended focus on confronting widespread parental ignorance and denial of the extent and seriousness of the underage drinking problem.  In addition, the ads vary greatly from industry-backed “responsibility” ads that don’t seriously address harms related to alcohol consumption. 

3.  Surgeon General’s “Call to Action”

Finally, U.S.  Surgeon General Richard Carmona announced his intention to launch a first-ever national “Call to Action” on underage drinking prevention.  Such action has long been a top priority for CSPI, MADD, Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol-Free, and other members of the National Alliance to Prevent Underage Drinking. 

We can only hope that the above developments will lead to a real federal commitment and mustering of political will to begin seriously addressing America’s number one youth substance use crisis.  While those steps appear encouraging, it is clear that talk alone – whether parents talking to their children, or federal agencies talking to states and communities - is not sufficient.  Words must be backed by action and sustained federal commitment to giving this issue the same level of attention that has resulted in real progress on youth smoking and illicit drug use.  Such action ought to be guided by a comprehensive and cohesive national strategy to prevent and reduce underage drinking.  SAMHSA has not delivered that plan – despite several Congressional directives – more than two years after release of the NAS/IOM report.  State efforts alone are not sufficient to address the problem. 

Federal action must also be backed by resources – starting with passage of the STOP Act (H.R. 864 / S.  408) and inclusion of full funding for key underage drinking prevention programs in the President’s 2007 budget request (those under the purview of SAMHSA, NIAAA, OJJDP, NHTSA, CDC, DOE, and the DOD).  A top priority should be the creation of a highly visible, publicly-funded, truly national media campaign that evokes and anchors a coherent national plan. 

The ICCPUD, under the leadership of SAMHSA, has exhorted the states to do more on underage drinking prevention.  Some states - notably New Hampshire, Florida, and Oregon - have begun work on state-wide plans to combat youth alcohol use.  In many states, the Governors’ spouses – through the Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol-Free – have made important strides in putting the issue on the public health agenda.  SAMHSA has encouraged the states to hold state-wide “town hall meetings” on the same day in late March, 2006 to draw attention to the underage drinking issue and engage communities in local action plans aimed at reducing youth drinking.  Local coalitions, activists and concerned citizens can work with their state teams to shape agendas for those town hall meetings.  We urge participants to look beyond a narrow focus on education and awareness about the problem and include real discussion of policy reforms known to be effective in reducing underage drinking. 


Updated November 4, 2005


Related Links:


HHS Press Release on Underage Drinking


View the Ad Council TV Spots



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