More Tax Money Sought to Fight Underage Drinking

By Christine Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:19 PM EDT

( - The federal government isn't spending enough taxpayer dollars to combat underage drinking, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

"The federal government has not placed a financial priority on addressing the biggest drug problem facing our children," said MADD National President Millie I. Webb.

MADD cites a new General Accounting Office (GAO) report showing that underage drinking costs the nation $52 billion annually. Yet Congress appropriated "only $71 million" to combat the problem this year, said MADD.

But other policy experts wonder whether congressional involvement in issues such as drunk driving is appropriate. Ed Hudgins, director of regulatory affairs for the Cato Institute, questions the involvement of the federal government in dealing with underage drinking at all.

"It's none of the federal government's business," said Hudgins. "The Constitution does not give the federal government the authority over local traffic issues."

"The problem differs from state to state and even region to region," Hudgins added. "It is an error to have a one-size-fits-all federal policy."

"That's the nice thing about having 50 states," said Hudgins. "You get 50 chances to experiment and see what works."

Another aspect involves efforts to reach parity between costs and spending and whether that's the best way of solving problems like underage drinking.

"They're right about the general principle that we should invest our resources where they will give us the greatest return," said David Ropeik, director of risk communication for the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. "But answering the question of how to do that is more complicated than just comparing those two numbers."

"It is not just, 'here's what kills most of us and here's where we should spend the money,'" said Ropeik. Public policy decisions "also must, in a democracy, take into account people's values and motivations."

For example, said Ropeik, "The greatest [health] risk is heart disease. In terms of things that kill people in America, your annual risk of dying from heart disease in America is one in 385. Your annual risk of dying from all accidents, including motor vehicles, is one in 2,928."

"If [heart disease were] all caused by eating ice cream, and we decide as a society that we're willing to live with fewer life years in order to have Cherry Garcia while we're alive, than it's not worth spending money on that, even though numerically it leads the list of what kills us," Ropeik explained.