Absolut Tampax: The Problem With Alarmist Drug and Alcohol Stories

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Are women soaking their tampons in alcohol to get drunk? Yes, some of them. But that's not a trend, and we're asking the wrong questions.

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According to Stephen Colbert, being a parent is a "sublime and beautiful adventure, filled with unexpected joys and unimaginable terror." Undoubtedly, much of this is due to the behavior of children. If that weren't enough, most local news hours provide wall-to-wall coverage of the "unimaginable terror" which Colbert speaks of. Look no further than Phoenix KPHO, who stood steadfast to their self-appointed motto, "telling it like it is." Taking a catnap from more pressing immigration concerns, KPHO delivered a hard-hitting piece on the newest problem in Arizona high schools, alcohol soaked tampons.

In order to provide their audience with an objective, measured assessment of the situation, KPHO led with the "experts." As Valley High School security officer Chris Thomas explains in the broadcast, "This is not isolated to any school, any city, any financial area. This is everywhere." Similar to made-for-TV ads capable of shaking housewives out of ambien-induced comas by shouting, "Wait! That's not all," KPHO kept the shock coming -- its not just teenage girls getting in on the fun. Again, American crime-stopper Chris Thomas breaks the news, "this is definitely not just girls. Guys will also use it and insert them into their rectums." But wait! That's not all....

KPHO finishes strong, exposing the real danger on the horizon, the growing trend of "butt-chugging" amongst misguided youth. You heard that correct, "butt-chugging." Unfortunately, this is exactly as it sounds. Enthusiasts use a funnel/beer-bong and apply the tube directly to their anal cavity. After watching 10 minutes of actual "butt-chugging" clips, I find myself asking the same question you all are: Why? What's wrong with using your mouth?

Turns out folks, officer Thomas is a harbinger of truth. Alcohol tampons and butt-chugging are truly a global problem. Reports have surfaced over the last 13 years not just in the United States, but in Finland, Germany, and Columbia as well. The first known coverage of vodka tampons dates back to 1999, when the Oxford Journals first documented their use. That same year, Reuters documented the creativity of teenage Finnish girls, noting that several of them had been experimenting with "tampons dipped in vodka as a way of getting tipsy without parents detecting boozy breath." Here, we have our first inkling as to why underage drinkers might find this appealing: they think they can hide this form of drinking more readily. In addition, the use of alcohol tampons and "butt-chugging" both bypass the stomach, allowing users to feel the effects faster, without the worry of an upset stomach. For those watching their figure, this form of consumption also avoids many of the calories associated with alcohol consumption. Reports have also suggested that naïve teens may also believe this is good way to beat a Breathalyzer.

Now, let's unpack the mythology. Despite not consuming alcohol orally, those that use alcohol tampons or chug will not have booze-free breath. Alcohol is partially expelled through the body via the lungs. Once alcohol is in the blood, it will be partially removed from your system as you exhale. This is why breathalyzers work -- they measure blood alcohol content -- and why you won't beat the test. As for not getting sick, this appears to be accurate. However, this is not panacea for those looking to avoid the cons of heavy alcohol consumption. Because these practices circumvent the stomach, those with potential alcohol poisoning will not vomit, but simply pass out. Furthermore, this may present an unexpected problem for medical authorities: "If a person does pass out or lose consciousness, health care professionals won't necessarily know that they have to look in those areas and that may delay treatment," said Dr. Dan Quan of the Maricopa Medical Medical Center in Phoenix. Worse still, Quan lamented that teenager's cutting edge use of funnels and tampons may cause serious "mucosal irritation to the vagina and rectum."

Despite the apparent ineffectiveness and general discomfort caused by both practices, rumblings sporadically surface in the popular press. Following 1999 murmurs out of Finland, a May 2003 review of a Vic Chesnutt album in the St. Louis Riverfront Times applauds his "hilarious" song "Band Camp," in which he "recounts the story of a high-school girl who soaked a tampon in vodka and fell off her stool in science class." In 2005, police arrested a Houston-area woman after her alcoholic husband died of a "lethal sherry enema" she administered. In 2008 vodka tampons and "butt-chugging" reached their zenith in popular culture, highlighted in major national programs CSI and The Doctors. This past year, local Phoenix news station KPHO renewed the hysteria with their own tabloid-style report.

In each report, one element is alarmingly absent: actual proof. Perhaps the age of users presents complications for reporting. However, college-aged users would not present this complication and are conspicuously absent. Nowhere are actual users consulted and/or mentioned. In addition, reports rest on "expert" opinions like that of security officer Thomas, not upon concrete statistics and realities. More likely than not, it is the reports themselves -- the popular attention (advertisements) granted to alcohol tampons and "butt-chugging" -- which perpetuate the existence of both practices.

fdoctors-but-chug.jpg Given the lack of sustained attention, what we have here hardly qualifies as a legitimate moral panic relating to alcohol or drugs. Nonetheless, much of the reporting got me thinking about a three part entry on panics by our managing editor Joseph Spillane last spring. In part two, Spillane discusses the common errors made which allow for panics to happen. These errors include: failure to quantify the behavior in question, often involving disproportion regarding the scope and severity of the problem; reporting a behavior as a "new" problem that previously existed; a failure to understand the actual danger presented; and, often, ignoring larger structural problems. Certainly, various reports on alcohol tampons and chugging have made such errors; the KPHO report makes all of them.

Spillane also discusses Phillip Jenkins' 1999 work, Synthetic Panics: The Symbolic Politics of Designer Drugs. Jenkins rightly asserts that the drug-war era "promised rich political dividends to any group or individual who could successfully draw attention to a plausible new drug menace." Certainly, KPHO and others would have been excited to find more evidence to support future follow-up pieces. News networks have long understood the value of a good panic, highlighted most significantly by network coverage of crack in 1986, spanning nearly four months of saturated hysteria. Cultural crusaders also found benefits. Nancy Reagan learned that teaching the nation's children to "Just Say No" enhanced her public image; Reverends found inspiring copy for sermons and community outreach; law enforcement sought occasion to demand more funding; politicians scrambled to write legislation, and public figures nabbed more air time. The net result: The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 establishing the now notorious minimum sentencing guidelines which contribute to what Michelle Alexander has coined The New Jim Crow.

In this particular case anecdotal evidence failed to create significant shockwaves. However, the common errors in coverage of alcohol tampons and chugging are how larger panics develop. Moreover, the financial "dividends" of alarmist drug-war era rhetoric assure that reporting like this will continue as long as we pay attention, as will obscure drug- and alcohol-related activities. Reports based on anecdotal evidence which present a "new" problem as ubiquitous should not be taken seriously.

But let's get back to why kids that actually try this decide it might be a decent idea: they are underage and want to hide their illegal behavior. What if the legal drinking age were lowered to 18? Might the same kids be more inclined to imbibe using ... their mouths? Would this troubling practice probably disappear rendering previously "illegal" behavior by college-aged drinkers both legal and mainstream?


This article originally appeared on Points, an Atlantic partner site.

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Michael Durfee is a contributing editor to Points, the blog of The Alcohol and Drugs History Society.

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