The Nebraska Office of Highway Safety is running a "Must B 21" Report Underage Drinking media campaign. I'm not sure how ratting out the Rosenbaums next door for offering up a little Manischewitz with the Passover seder has anything to do with highway safety, but whatever. (That's a straw man, I know. I consider myself duly castigated.) Anyway, I bring up the campaign only because their radio ad caught my ear. The announcer belted out the scary-sounding statistic that underage drinking costs Nebraskans a whopping $447 million every year. That's a lot of cash! It also sounds like a load of hooey, doesn't it? As with all-too-many campaigns like this, the website offers no sources for its data. I hate that. What's so hard about providing a little supporting data, a link to a study or two in a peer-reviewed journal? Just for fun I spent a few minutes [sic] seeing what I could do to back up the $447 million figure. The closest I could come were some figures from 2007 (PDF) that peg the costs associated with teen (16-20) alcohol-related accidents at $37 million. That gets us 8% of the way; and the remaining 92%? Well, the numbers are different, but this statsheet (PDF) likely hints at a big chunk of the story: "pain and suffering" accounts for a full 66% of the costs. If that's not padding the numbers I don't know what is. Fine, Mr. Wilson, let's say one or more of the website's "Stats & Facts" are partially bogus. But doesn't the core message of the campaign -- teens shouldn't drink, and those who facilitate teen drinking should be punished -- still hold water? In my opinion, mostly, but not entirely. I agree that teens shouldn't abuse alcohol, and I sure as heck agree that impaired teens shouldn't be behind the wheel. But then, I think the same thinks about adults, too. Personally, I don't have a problem with anybody responsibly using substances of various natures or doing various activities. No way will I endorse ratting out somebody who is causing no harm. The key factor above is responsibility. Fleshing out what that means could fill a book. I'll summarize with two points. First, you oughtn't look to frat boys for advice. More importantly, responsibility is contextual. The zone of responsibility involving teenagers and alcohol is pretty narrow, but it's not nonexistent. Pretending that there's no way to responsibly enjoy alcohol until the magical age of 21 is part of the problem, not the solution. Teens see right through that sort of exaggeration, and they rebel against it. They're wired that way. What about procuring alcohol for minors? Again, context matters. Hosting a kegger for a bunch of 14 year-olds without their parents' knowledge is clearly not legit. Giving a 19 year-old a beer to drink while he watches the Huskers on TV? The food that's been sitting on the table for the past three hours is far more of a menace to society. The campaign, like the law, is flawed because it doesn't care about context. Neither differentiates between the harmless and the harmful. The campaign encourages people to go all McCarthy on "any" person who breaks the law. Though it's understandable why they have to send that message, it's unfortunately overbroad. I hope Nebraskans don't get too literalist and instead focus on the activities that actually cause society harm. If we don't, if we continue to overstate alcohol's threat and maintain an absolutist stance, we will just continue to make our job of raising responsible youth more difficult than it needs to be.