Magic's Blocked Shot
On June 7, Abigail Van Buren devoted her "Dear Abby" column to Earvin "Magic" Johnson's new book, What You Can Do To Avoid AIDS. Buy "one for yourself and one for someone you care about," she urged. Just don't look for it at Kmart or Walgreen, a Deerfield (Ill.) drugstore chain with more than 1,700 outlets. They won't stock the book, which is addressed to teenagers.
The decision has public health officials shaking their heads in frustration. Government statistics suggest that teens increasingly are at risk of contracting AIDS, so effective warnings are a public health priority. And the kids Johnson is trying to reach are more likely to hang out in a Kmart or a drugstore than a bookstore, says Peter L. Osnos, publisher of Times Books, the Random House Inc. division putting out Johnson's book.
What You Can Do...highlights a battle brewing in the government and school systems over how best to educate teens about sex and AIDS. Johnson's book is a frank discussion of the disease. That candor is the problem, says Osnos. He says Kmart Corp. and Walgreen Co. objected to the use of slang to help define a few anatomical terms and a diagram illustrating how to use a condom.
RIGHT TONE. Kmart made a marketing decision, says spokeswoman Mary McGeachy: "The teenage market doesn't shop for books at Kmart." So Kmart will sell Johnson's book through its WaldenBooks Inc. chain. A Walgreen spokesman likens the chain's refusal to carry the book to its policy of not selling skin magazines.
Proponents of Johnson's $3.99 book, whose net profits go to the Magic Johnson Foundation, feel that the book's tone is right on the mark for teens. "If you want to reach kids, you have to use the language they understand," says Dr. Allan Rosenfield, Dean of the School of Public Health at Columbia University.
Kmart and Walgreen are far from alone in their stance on graphic language. Objections to explicit questions about sex led Health & Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan last year to block federal funding of a survey of teen sexual behavior. In New York City and Jacksonville, Fla., foes of a proposed AIDS curriculum felt discussions of sex were too frank and that abstinence wasn't stressed enough.
AIDS activists say those arguments miss the point. "This is an example of the ostrich theory," says the Reverend Margaret Reinfeld, an Episcopal priest and director of education and international programs at the American Foundation for AIDS Research. "If we don't acknowledge [teen sex], it doesn't exist." Fact is, teens are having sex, much of it risky. A study released by the Urban Institute in Washington reported that just half of the 900 sexually active men aged 17 to 19 surveyed use condoms.
Worse, the Centers for Disease Control reports that HIV infection may be spreading rapidly among teenagers. Through March, 1992, there had been 821 cases of full-blown AIDS among teens. But there were nearly 8,600 among those aged 20 to 24 and 34,000 among those 25 to 29. Since the CDC estimates the average time between HIV infection and full-blown AIDS is 10 years, it's likely that most of those people were infected during adolescence.
The book soon may spark another controversy: Osnos reports that school systems across the country are reviewing it. That's sure to anger some parents--and perhaps save some kids' lives.