Does Peter Jennings Have a Drug Problem?

By Michael Fumento

The Sacramento Bee, October 10, 1996
Copyright 1996 the Sacramento Bee

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Question: When is a youth drug problem not a drug problem? When it becomes a campaign issue against a Democratic president, that’s when.

Consider the way Peter Jennings of ABC News reacted to the Department of Health and Human Service’s (HHS) 1994 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse.

According to Jennings, the government report was based on a survey of 4,600 young people which showed that the number who reported heroin use from 1994 to 1995 increased 130 percent.

"On the other hand," he said, "only 14 teenagers used it in one year and 32 the next. Out of 4,600, that’s not very many. The number of kids who use cocaine also doubled from 14 kids to 37 - also not very many out of 4,600."

With marijuana, said Jennings, "Out of the 4,600. . . young people, those who said they used it went from 276 to 377, which means a more accurate picture of the drug crisis is really based on a big increase in the use of marijuana, not cocaine or heroin."

Okay, stop the tape right there. Time to give Jennings a refresher course in math.

First, the increase in cocaine use over a single year was 164 percent, not a doubling as Jennings reported. A doubling is 100 percent. I say that if high school students are allowed to use calculators on the SAT exams, news anchormen ought to be allowed to use them, too.

Meanwhile, as noted, the increase in heroin use was 130 percent, while the number of youths puffing on marijuana joints (No, the weren’t asked whether they inhaled or not.) increased only 37 percent. Thus, heroin use increased 3.5 times more than did marijuana, while cocaine increased nearly 4.5 times more. How could Mr. Jennings claim that "the drug crisis is really based on a big increase in the use of marijuana"?

Worse, Jennings seems not to understand that a survey is just a sample. Each person represents lots and lots of people who were not asked to participate. Once we realize that there are 18 million teens between the ages of 12 and 17, the absolute numbers become much more of a concern. In 1994, rather than envisioning 14 kids using heroin, we must understand that the same percentage projected onto the population of young people gives us 54,000 teen-age heroin users. By 1995, that number had jumped to 126,000.

For cocaine, the pertinent figures are 54,000 users in 1994, but 144,000 a year later. Marijuana jumped from 1.1 million estimated users in 1994 to 1.44 million in 1995.

To top it off, anybody who knows anything about polling knows that when questions are asked regarding illegal actions or even actions that are just frowned upon, the persons surveyed often don’t tell the truth.

For example, during the energy crunch in the early 1970s, everybody was supposed to be scrimping and saving every drop of gasoline and every watt of electricity. A pollster asked respondents a series of questions about their efforts to do so. But the pollster also cleverly inserted a "control" question to see if the respondents weren’t fudging.

The pollster asked people if they had installed a Thermidor on their cars to save gasoline. Many said that, oh yes, they certainly had. In fact, Thermidor is a way of cooking lobster. It’s tasty, I’m told, but saves no gasoline.

So it’s a foregone conclusion that more kids are using drugs than the polling data indicate.

Now, it’s not that there aren’t possible problems with the HHS survey. For example, since the sample numbers for those using cocaine and heroin were low, the number that they represent in the general population could be considerably higher or considerably lower.

Also, it’s always easiest to grow in percentage terms from a lower baseline. If one person dies of plague in Colorado one year and two the next, the number of plague deaths has effectively doubled. (By this I mean a real doubling, not a Peter Jennings doubling.) But it doesn’t mean we’ll soon be hearing men with carts walking through the streets crying "Bring out your dead!" So the large percentage increase in cocaine and heroin users may not be as serious as it seems. Future surveys will tell us if we’re really seeing a trend.

Finally, the HHS survey also found that as young people grow older and face the real world, their drug use rate falls way off. Drug use rates among adults are holding steady.

All of these are legitimate qualifiers for the HHS study, and Jennings and his staff could have given viewers important information by relaying them. Instead, they chose a knee-jerk path of simply pooh-poohing the study.

Given the media’s penchant for sensationalism and scare tactics, one strongly suspects their attitude would have been different were Bob Dole president and Bill Clinton on the outside looking in.


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on the media.