Acting U.S. Surgeon General Kenneth Moritsugu said he didn’t start drinking alcohol until after the age of 21 — and he credits his parents with setting a good example.
While growing up on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, he remembers his father enjoyed an occasional beer and his mother a rare glass of wine.
“My parents were my role models,” the nation’s top health educator said in a telephone interview while on his way to the governor’s mansion Tuesday. “It’s exactly the message that we’re trying to get out into the community — that parents and adults need to model responsible drinking, when it is appropriate and when it is legal. But also be respectful of the fact that the science tells us increasingly that underage drinking is dangerous to our youth, (and) is also dangerous to our community.”
One of the dangers is death.
Across the nation, underage drinking contributes to the death of about 5,000 young people a year through automobile accidents, homicides, suicides, drownings, burns and falls.
“These are all totally preventable deaths,” Moritsugu said before his public address at The Lensic Performing Arts Center. “We really need to do something about it, and that’s the reason that I’m here.”
At the request of first lady Barbara Richardson, Moritsugu came to New Mexico this week to promote his Call to Action to Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking. More research on adolescent alcohol use; careful coordination between parents, schools, communities and governments; and consistent policies are part of the national plan.
Binge drinking — consuming five or more drinks — is common among New Mexico students. In 2005, more than a third of high school freshmen and about half of juniors and seniors reported heavy drinking within the previous month.
“I would tend to say we have a big problem on our hands.” said Alice Sealy, who coordinates Teen Court in Santa Fe and urged offenders in the program to attend Moritsugu’s talk.
“The biggest deterrent is if parents would notice (that their children are drinking),” she said. Police who break up parties should call the parents of underage drinkers, she said, but don’t always do so.
You might not be able to keep your child from sampling alcohol before the legal drinking age — 70 percent of Americans have had at least one drink by age 18 — but you can teach your child what responsible drinking looks like and why it’s important.
Sealy agrees parental behavior is powerful. “If your kids see you drinking every night, they think it’s OK,” she said.
Though parents and guardians can legally serve alcohol to their underage children in their own home, Moritsugu said he discourages the practice. “I think that we send our kids a mixed message when we say on one hand, ‘No, you can’t drink; you shouldn’t drink.’ On the other hand we say, ‘You can drink at home,’ ” he said. “Our youth, our teenagers are looking for a clear and unequivocal message — and we need to be consistent if we’re going to get that message across.”
The societal norm of letting alcohol flow during holidays where children are present troubles Sealy, who stepped in to prevent an underage drinker from driving after a Passover Seder.
Age 21 isn’t just an arbitrary number. Science shows that brains continue to develop into the 20s.
“The earlier one starts drinking and exposes the developing brain to alcohol, the more risk ... that person is taking. If there is a risk, why take that risk?” Moritsugu said.
Those who start drinking before age 15 are five times more susceptible to alcohol problems in adulthood, studies show.
Frank Magourilos of the Santa Fe County DWI Program said the surgeon general’s prevention strategies are already in use here. The acclaimed Project Northland curriculum was implemented in Santa Fe middle schools last year and will start up next semester in Pojoaque middle schools.
Magourilos said New Mexico’s strong underage-sales law — which made it a fourth-degree felony in 2005 to sell or give alcohol to minors — seems to be an effective move. “That was a great thing that the governor did,” he said.
Statewide, the law led to 113 arrests in 2007 and 123 arrests in 2006, according to the Department of Public Safety.
Santa Fe County Sheriff Greg Solano said joint sting operations with the state produced six arrests here last year. However, there has been only one arrest this year because of the lack of grant funding to conduct sting operations.
“Research tells us that underage drinking is connected to higher rates of teenage pregnancy, suicide and failure in school,” Dr. Alfredo Vigil, the state health secretary, said in a statement. “We all need to work together to prevent our young people from drinking and putting their lives at risk.”
Moritsugu has been acting surgeon general for more than a year, since Dr. Richard Carmona resigned because he felt pressured by the Bush administration to present a political agenda. Moritsugu is scheduled to take the underage drinking tour to eight states.
Underage drinking: What you can do
Tobacco and illegal drug use are down among American teens, but heavy underage drinking continues.
What families can do about underage alcohol use:
* Support your teens and give them space to grow.
* Set clear rules about alcohol use and enforce those rules.
* Teach your children about the dangers of underage drinking and make clear your expectations.
* Help your teens make good decisions about alcohol.
* Tell teens that any alcohol in your home is off limits to them.
* Don’t let your teens attend parties where alcohol is served.
* Help your teens get professional help if you’re worried about their involvement with alcohol.
* Understand the risk of alcohol use goes up with social transitions (graduation, getting a driver’s license), depression, contact with peers involved in deviant activities and a family history of alcoholism.
* Be a positive role model: Don’t drink too much or too often. Get help if you think you have an alcohol-related problem.
UNDERAGE DRINKING: KEY FACTS
* Alcohol dependence rates in the United States are highest among 18- to 20-year-olds.
* Teens drink less often than adults but drink a larger volume of alcohol on a single occasion.
* Underage drinking kills about 5,000 young people a year.
* Teens who choose to drink may have behavior problems; a strong desire for new experiences; or a history of family conflict, stress or alcohol problems.
* As early as age 9, children think alcohol use is OK.
source: The New Mexican