Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Hand Sanitizer Hype

Anyone who has looked at the news in the past two weeks is probably familiar with the latest moral panic:  teenagers drinking hand sanitizer to get drunk.   Apparently, most hand sanitizers (which unlike beer don't have an age limit) contail large amounts of ethanol (i.e. drinking alcohol), up to 60-70% in fact--making it nearly as strong as 151.  So strong, in fact, that some teens ended up in the emergency room with alcohol poisoning as a result.  (WARNING:  DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!)  And the media are clearly eating it up.

But is there really any reason to panic?  Probably not.  For one thing, overall teenage drinking is actually at a record low according to the Monitoring the Future survey and other surveys.  Secondly, alcohol "surrogates" are nothing new--vanilla extract, mouthwash, and cough medicine all typically contain alcohol and have no age limit to purchase them despite the fact that they are (ironically) more harmful than normal alcoholic beverages.  There have always been at least some people consuming them, and there is zero hard evidence that surrogates in general are any more popular among young people today than they were a generation ago.  In fact, very few teens actually end up resorting to drinking sanitizer or any other surrogate alcohol, and so far the number reportedly ending up in the ER from sanitizer remains in the single digits.  But just like moral panics and media hype about glue-sniffing in the 1960s actually made the practice more popular among teenagers, there is the same potential for hand sanitizer to follow such a trend if the media keeps at it long enough.

One thing is clear, however.   The idea that the drinking age should be 21 (as opposed to 18) to keep booze away from high-schoolers now appears to be even more of a canard in light of the fact that kids of any age can just drink sanitizer (and other more harmful surrogates) to catch a cheap buzz when all else fails.  It appears that this "trickle-down" theory is just as bogus as the other one.

If all this sounds similar to what happened during Prohibition, you would be correct.  "Paint remover" (industrial denatured alcohol) and various patent medicines like "ginger jake" were among the surrogates used by drinkers in the 1920s, with disastrous consequences.   Sadly, as many as 10,000 people died as a result, and their blood lies on the hands of the feds who mandated the deliberate poisoning of alcohol surrogates while simultaneously denying legal, quality-controlled alcoholic beverages to the people for thirteen years in a row.  The results were all too painfully predictable.  And unfortunately, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

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