By Patti Tiberi • Guest Columnist
“Alcohol is the most widely used substance of abuse among America’s youth. A higher percentage of young people between the ages of 12 and 20 use alcohol than use tobacco or illicit drugs. The physical consequences of underage alcohol use range from medical problems to death by alcohol poisoning, and alcohol plays a significant role in risky sexual behavior, physical and sexual assaults, various types of injuries, and suicide. Underage drinking also creates secondhand effects for others, drinkers and nondrinkers alike, including car crashes from drunk driving, that put every child at risk. Underage alcohol consumption is a major societal problem with enormous health and safety consequences and will demand the nation’s attention and committed efforts to solve.”
This is a direct quote from former Acting Surgeon General Rear Admiral Kenneth Moritsugu, from his “Call To Action” in 2007. But one may wonder why there is all this fuss about underage drinking. Isn’t it just something that is “a rite of passage?” Don’t all kids do it?
Well, the answer is no. Many of us like to look back and say, “We survived it, they will too!” Truth be told, there are many that did not survive it and they are not here to tell their side of the story. Many of us ended up going through many years of grief as we struggled to manage our disease of alcoholism. Few people in recovery speak out in public about their struggles to manage their disease. There is still a very strong stigma attached to having alcoholism.
But the reality is that more young people in the U.S. drink alcohol every month than smoke cigarettes or use any illegal drug. Additionally, alcohol kills more young people per year than all illegal drugs combined!
Many studies show that media advertising of alcohol products is a major factor in decisions made by 12- to 20-year olds to start drinking or drink more heavily if they are already drinkers. In a recently released report, the Center for Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) noted that, since 2000, many alcohol companies have voluntarily reduced their advertising in markets with greater than 30 percent underage audiences.
However, the report stated that alcohol advertising in markets with more than a 15 percent youth population still results in overexposure. While the industry has made progress, more needs to be done to limit the amount of alcohol promotion our young people see on TV, movies and in magazines.
The availability of alcoholic drinks that have a sweet taste, like lemonade, is also a concern because they seem designed to appeal to young people. Plus, alcohol products like malt liquor can often cost less than soda. Even if it can’t be purchased legally by young people, the low cost makes it easier to pay someone to purchase it for them.
Children are beginning to drink at an earlier age in a day when we know much more about the impact that alcohol use has on the changing adolescent brain. Our science now reports that youth who begin drinking before the age of 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence. But every day in our country, 7,000 youth under the age of 16 take their first drink.
While we used to find that boys drank more heavily than girls, we now see that girls have caught up and are drinking just as heavily. (Institute of Medicine, National Research Council of the National Academics)
It is important that you help. First thing, please help to reduce the availability of alcohol to youth under 21. If you have alcohol at home, keep it in a secure place and monitor it. Second, help support law enforcement in targeting the underage drinking issue. This could be something as simple as getting to know the parents of your child’s friends and agreeing with them about not serving alcohol to youth under 21. Third, get involved locally to help change your community’s norms around alcohol use. Learn more about the issue by checking out the following websites: alcoholfreechildren.org, ncpud.org, faceproject.org, and drugfree.org.
(Patti Tiberi is the Regional Prevention Coordinator at Smoky Mountain Center and the Chair of Healthy Haywood’s Substance Abuse Action Team. For more information on how to get involved with a Health Action Team, go to www.healthyhaywood.org or call 828.452.6675. Healthy Haywood is a program of the Haywood County Health Department and certified Healthy Carolinians partnership.