Pfft goes the methedemic.

Media criticism.
July 21 2006 5:44 PM

Pfft Goes the Methedemic

The press underplays news of reduced meth use, plus the "Stupid Story of the Week."

An iron law of journalism dictates that news of increased drug use goes onto Page One and at the top of broadcasts, but news of decreased drug use must be buried or ignored.

The press followed this iron law last month when the nation's leading tester of drugs in the workplace, Quest Diagnostics, released new findings in a press release titled "Amphetamines Use Declined Significantly Among U.S. Workers in 2005." (The company lumps amphetamine and its chemical cousin methamphetamine together in its "amphetamines" category.)

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In 2005, Quest Diagnostics gave 6 million drug tests to the general workforce and charted an 8 percent decline in the detection of amphetamines from the previous year. You'll recall that 2005 was the year Newsweek and other publications discovered a "meth epidemic" sweeping the country. The number of positives continues to drop, as Quest notes in its press release. In the first five months of 2006, the number of positives dropped another 10 percent.

Who skipped this news? The Washington Post, the Boston Globe,the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Times, and the Los Angeles Times, according to Nexis. The New York Times picked up an Associated Press story and published it on Page 15 (June 20).

The real decline in workplace meth was even greater than reported by AP, according to drug czar John P. Walters. In June 21testimony before the Senate foreign-relations committee, Walters said that when Quest extracted methamphetamine-only data from its "amphetamines" category, it found that meth-positive tests had dropped from 0.33 percent in 2004, to 0.26 percent in 2005, and finally to 0.18 percent for the first five months of 2006. Walters' testimony about this recent "45 percent reduction" went unpublished by the press, according to Nexis.

Quest's historical data does show a sharp increase in amphetamine/methamphetamine workplace positives between 2001 and 2004, when they rose from 0.29 percent to 0.52 percent of all tested, an increase of 79 percent. But if the 2001 to 2004 uptick was the gathering of a meth hurricane, the storm was already waning by the time Newsweek and the rest published their warnings last year.

A few provisos on the Quest data: The company does not test people randomly, so its findings don't represent the population at large. Also, workers who know a mandatory drug test is in the offing might abstain from drugs to pass and then return to them, further skewing the results. Yet shakier findings touting increases in drug use make bigger news all the time.

Stupid Drug Story of the Week. USA Today must have been thinking of my "Stupid Drug Story of the Week" feature yesterday (July 20) when it published its survey-derived Page One story, "1 in 5 Adults Have a Close Relative Who Is or Was Addicted to Drugs or Alcohol."

The headline faithfully represents the "screening question" for the poll that USA Today and HBO conducted together. The screen question asks:

Has any member of your immediate family, such as a spouse, parent, brother, sister, son or daughter ever been addicted to drugs or alcohol, or has drug or alcohol addiction never been an issue in your family?

Note that the question doesn't define addiction.A strict definition would surely reduce the 1-in-5 number. By not asking if a medical professional ever diagnosed a family member as an addict, the survey leaves it up to the respondent to decide whether a family member was "addicted." My family can't agree whether my brother was an alcoholic in the period after his discharge from the Navy 35 years ago or just having too much fun on Scotch. If my sister were taking the USA Today survey, she might answer "yes," while I would answer "no." His drinking tapered off within a year of coming home, but not because anybody "intervened." He barely touches the stuff now.

Likewise, consider the imprecision of the screening question. It refers to "member of your immediate family, such as a spouse, parent" etc. (Emphasis added.) Gung-ho respondents might take "such as" to include grandparents or cousins if they served surrogate roles as parents or siblings. And there's enough wiggle room in the screening question's last clause to drive a tract mansion through. If a close cousin drank himself to a premature death, would that qualify as an "issue in your family"? Also, if your brother Davy smoked a lot of pot during summer break between his junior and senior years, and mom and dad went nuts over it, would that constitute an "issue" of "addiction" in the family? Once more, it would depend on which family member you asked: I might say no, my parents might say yes. (A former girlfriend thought I was on the road to alcoholism—an "issue" for her, I'm sure—because I drank two beers a night for several weeks one summer.)

USA Today's survey isn't collecting addiction data, it's collecting people's subjective perceptions about addiction in their families.

Another quarrel with the survey's design: Its sample of 902 respondents who passed its screening question may be random, but its respondents won't reflect much about the nation at large if the designers don't take into account family size. Say a disproportionate number who passed the screening question come from large, long-lived families. They'd have more potential alkies and junkies to talk about than the unmarried and the childless, who might have only two or three qualifying family members. The answers provided by the big families would tilt the results. And vice versa.

The survey isn't completely worthless. It reveals that at the very least four of every five adults—or 80 percent of the population—report no addictions in their families ever! The actual percent of individuals with addiction-free families can only be higher.

I'll drink to that. Two beers, bartender.

******

Has any member of your immediate family, such as a spouse, parent, brother, sister, son, or daughter ever consumed an illicit drug or taken more than one drink? Has drug or alcohol addiction never been an issue in your family because you're a Southern Baptist? Send your responses via e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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