DEAR ABBY: As acting surgeon general of the United States, I would like to thank you for your recent reply on March 4 to a question regarding underage drinking. You advised your readers that "when children drink alcohol, they can more easily become dependent than adults."

Letting parents know that underage drinking is not a "harmless rite of passage," as many still believe, is one reason why I recently issued "The Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking." With this call to action, I am asking every American to join in a national effort to change attitudes and behaviors regarding underage alcohol use. Our children deserve nothing less.

We can no longer ignore what alcohol is doing to our children. Despite recent declines in their use of tobacco and illegal drugs, alcohol remains the most heavily abused substance by America's youth. There are 11 million underage drinkers in this country. Their alcohol use is associated with a long list of tragic consequences, including death from injury, risky sexual behavior, the use of other drugs and academic failure.

Abby, please urge your readers to request a copy of "The Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking" and other free materials about youth and alcohol from � HYPERLINK "http://www.surgeongeneral.gov" ��www.surgeongeneral.gov�, or by calling the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information. The toll-free number is: (800) 729-6686.

The good news is that underage drinking is not inevitable, and society is not helpless to prevent it. Underage drinking is everybody's problem -- and its solution is everyone's responsibility. Thank you again, Abby, for being a powerful part of that solution. -- REAR ADM. KENNETH P. MORITSUGU, M.D., M.P.H.

DEAR REAR ADM. MORITSUGU: I'm sure your offer will be appreciated and acted upon by parents nationwide. There is still a common misunderstanding about underage alcohol use. My experts tell me that young people who start drinking before age 15 are five times more likely to have alcohol problems later in life. Also, new research indicates that alcohol may harm the developing adolescent brain.

Parents and other adults who are not sure why -- or how -- to help young people avoid alcohol should ask the National Clearinghouse for "Start Talking Before They Start Drinking: A Family Guide." It's a booklet developed in conjunction with an Ad Council public education campaign bearing that title.

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DEAR ABBY: A couple of weeks ago, some friends and I visited a family friend's niece who had recently had a baby girl. While we were visiting, we noticed that the baby was hungry.

Being a good mom, the new mother unbuttoned her shirt, took off her bra, and breast-fed the baby right in front of us. Abby, was it right or wrong of her to expose her breasts in front of visitors when breast-feeding the child? -- RACHEL IN PHILADELPHIA

DEAR RACHEL: Breast-feeding a baby is normal and natural. However, removing one's bra to do it should not have been necessary. There are special nursing bras that allow the mother to uncover one breast at a time for the baby to nurse.

Chalk up what happened to the young mother's inexperience. And after all, it was done in the privacy of her home -- not in a public place.

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What teens need to know about sex, drugs, AIDS, and getting along with peers and parents is in "What Every Teen Should Know." To order, send a business-size, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $6 (U.S. funds) to: Dear Abby, Teen Booklet, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, IL 61054-0447. (Postage is included.)

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