One of the reasons kids like the Harry Potter series so much is that it involves school children discovering the intrigues — and seeing through the deceptions — of adults. So it is especially obtuse for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to tell kids that the adventures of Harry and his friends amount to an anti-alcohol sermon. The “kids area” of HHS’s National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information website includes this deceptive tidbit:

One night, Hagrid gets drunk and tells the secret of how to get the Sorcerer’s Stone. Hagrid’s mistake with alcohol puts Harry and the Stone’s safety in jeopardy. A lesson well learned from this story is that alcohol not only affects the one who is using it; it can have harmful effects on people the user loves and cares about. Happily, the story ends with Hagrid promising never to drink again.

This, as the British would say, is rubbish. Even a ten-year-old can discern that alcohol has little if anything to do with Hagrid’s misstep. His fascination with magical creatures and his penchant for letting secrets slip are the real causes.

Hagrid happily knocks down “four pints of mulled mead” while the Minister of Magic sips “red current rum” in a subsequent book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. What’s more, he and the Minister drink in front of schoolchildren — and then go back to work. That’s the kind of thing that drives neo-prohibitionists crazy. Remember the swim coach who was fired for having a beer with dinner in front of her team? If anything, it’s surprising that the Harry Potter books haven’t been condemned for their lax attitude towards alcohol.

There’s a larger lesson here. Neo-prohibitionist organizations frequently exaggerate the harm that alcohol can cause, especially in messages geared towards children. For example, one advertisement compares beer to heroin by depicting a bottle of beer as if it were a syringe. But just as kids know that Hagrid has a problem keeping secrets and not a problem with alcohol, they also know that beer isn’t heroin. Even CSPI understands that such messages are silly. According to CSPI, scare tactics “rarely prove effective as students can easily disassociate themselves from these messages/situations.” Unfortunately, the more kids tune out the overblown messages of the neo-prohibitionists, the more hysterical those messages become.