STATS ARTICLES 2006

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Wall Street Journal Slurs Young Women
February 24, 2006
Maia Szalavitz
Paper fesses up: failed to spot federal data contradicting new alcohol consumption claim

What is it with bad statistics and gender comparisons on drinking and other drug use? Recently we showed how the drug czar’s office misrepresented statistics to suggest that teenage girls now take more drugs than boys do. Now, the Wall Street Journal [2/15/06] has claimed that both British and American young women increased their consumption of alcohol (measured by volume) by one-third between 1999 and 2004.

The Journal got the statistic from the consumer research firm Datamonitor and, while the paper noted that the figure might be slightly exaggerated because measuring total volume measures mixers as well as alcohol, a researcher from the organization was quoted as saying that it represented a genuine increase.

In a letter from the alcohol industry group, the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. (DISCUS), published in the Wall Street Journal today, however, the group pointed out that by this measure, “if an ounce of alcohol was added to five ounces of orange juice, they counted this as six ounces of alcohol, a false and completely meaningless measure of alcohol consumption.” DISCUS added that neither the government nor the industry uses this measure “to the best of our knowledge.”

The Journal also ran a correction to the piece, noting that while the article had claimed that there was no measure of “binge drinking” by women in the U.S., the government does in fact keep such statistics, even if they are not directly comparable to those kept by the U.K. The U.S. numbers, from the National Household Survey on Drug Use and Health, do not show a recent increase in heavy drinking or binge drinking by young women.

Also, the government-funded Monitoring the Future study, which looks at long term drug and alcohol trends found that “binge drinking” by college age female drinkers (19-22) “remained quite steady from 1980 to 2003,” although between 1997 and 2002, there was an uptick among women 23-26. Daily drinking, meanwhile, generally declined since the 1980’s — but since 2002, there has been an increase among young men, accompanied by a drop in daily drinking by women!

Citing an AMA survey conducted by the Harris polling group, the Wall Street Journal claimed that teen girls who drink, “chug” more than boys do—but this contradicts survey data from every other source which has looked at the question, except for among the youngest teens. In this age group, girls sometimes have equivalent or higher rates of drinking and drug use than boys do—but this drops off as teens get older.

It is probably related to the long-known truism that girls mature physically earlier than boys do and those who do have earlier puberty are likely to hang out with older kids, thus increasing their chances of exposure to drinking and drugs at a younger age. Drinking and drug use is also relatively rare among the youngest adolescents, making accurate measurements more difficult

The U.K., on the other hand, has genuinely experienced a rise in binge-drinking as described by the Journal and drunken antisocial behavior is an increasing problem there among both young men and young women.

While it might be interesting to see what factors may be driving this trend in Great Britain and determine whether they might soon produce similar bad behavior here (the MDMA ecstasy trend first hit the charts in the UK, followed by a “British invasion” of the drug here, so a similar cross-over is possible), this is not what the press appears to be doing in its coverage of the issue.

Instead, there’s an almost prurient interest in reporting on drinking and drug use by young women — a seeming desire to make increased drug abuse casualties a penalty for women’s advancement in the workplace. If the numbers genuinely supported such a case, it would be one thing — but it’s quite another to try to make the facts fit the preconception.

The media seems unable to change its storyline of ever-increasing bad behavior by young people. It was forced to accept dropping crime rates — but it will not abide the fact that today’s youth, both male and female, are better behaved on almost every measure than their parents were. Good news may not be news — but faking bad news is not the answer.