More than half the nation's junior and senior high school students drink alcoholic beverages and many "binge" drink to relieve stress and boredom, according to a national survey released Thursday. "They drink deliberately to change the way they feel," said Surgeon General Antonia Novello. "And we know that the use of alcohol to, in effect, self-medicate is the trap door to full-blown alcoholism."
More than 40 percent of those who admitted drinking said they do it when they are upset, 31 percent said they drink alone, 25 percent said they drink when they are bored and 25 percent said they drink to get high, the survey said.
Novello said adults need to "pay attention to the strong signal adolescents are sending us" and help them find other ways to cope.
She said another troubling finding from the survey was that two-thirds of the teen-agers couldn't always tell which beverages contained alcohol, even after studying the labels. On average, students were unable to tell the difference three out of 10 times.
The problem emerged when students tried to tell the difference between wine coolers and flavored mineral waters that have "unbelievably similar" coloring, labeling and packaging, Novello said.
Novello said she was establishing a task force including officials from the Food and Drug Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and other federal agencies to look at alcohol labeling and other issues.
"Teen-agers need to be educated about alcohol, alcohol labels need to be precise and clearer, and all of us need to get involved in helping this generation at risk," she said.
Overall, the survey found that 10.6-million of the nation's 20.7-million students in grades seven through 12 drink. Eight-million drink weekly; 5.4-million have binged on occasion, and 454,000 go on a binge of five or more drinks in a row at least once a week.
Many binge drinkers "are already alcoholics and the rest may well be on their way," Novello said. Fifty-eight percent of those who binge said they drink when they're upset and 30 percent said they drink when they are bored.
Novello faulted parents, schools and alcohol producers for failing to adequately educate teens about the ill effects of alcohol.
The survey was conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services. The department surveyed 956 students in 32 schools in eight randomly selected states, including Florida.