Saturday, April 19, 2008

Alcohol A 'Leading Public Health Problem'

As concerned as we rightfully are about the methamphetamine plague, and other forms of drug abuse, it is a fact that alcohol is the number one drug of choice among youth in the United States today, and Oregon has the notoriety of ranking among the highest in the nation for its incidence of underage drinking.

Columbia County’s underage drinking rates are below the state’s rate for 30-day use rates - thanks in large part, we believe, to the efforts of the Clatskanie Together Coalition, the Columbia Community Mental Health, Columbia County Commission on Children and Families and other programs that are working together to raise awareness and educate our youth and communities, not just in April, but all year long.

However, Columbia County’s 30-day use rates are still above the national average, and “binge” drinking rates at both the 8th and 11th grade level are above the state average. In Clatsop County, the most recent surveys indicate that 8th grade drinking is below the statewide average, but 11th graders drink at a higher rate than the state.

Underage drinking qualifies as a leading public health problem across the United States, according to a recent declaration by the U.S. Surgeon General.

Now that’s a pretty powerful statement - Underage Drinking Qualifies As A Leading Public Health Problem! That statement has been a long time coming.

For most of the 80 years since the end of the failed experiment of prohibition, the attempts to change society’s attitudes about alcohol have been largely ignored, except by those actively involved in recovery programs - alcoholics, their families and the professionals who work with them.

It’s about time that alcohol be recognized for the public health problem it is, in a way similar to the campaign against tobacco.

Thirty-one percent of Oregon's eighth graders and half the state’s 11th graders reported regular alcohol use last year. Approximately 38,000 youngsters in Oregon have a serious alcohol problem.

Binge drinking on college campuses is “practically an epidemic,” according to a press release from the Oregon Partnership, a highly-respected statewide nonprofit organization that works to promote healthy kids and communities by raising awareness about drug and alcohol issues.

Alcohol use is associated with the leading causes of death of young people - vehicular crashes, drownings and accidents of all kinds, suicide. For those who begin drinking young and continue (and don’t die first of alcohol-caused “accidents”), alcohol takes a terrible - ultimately fatal - toll on their livers, their hearts, their brains and other organs. It is linked to several kinds of cancer. Recent research proves that adolescent drinking severely damages children’s (including young people up to their early 20s) still developing brains.

According to the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, underage drinking costs Oregonians $697 million a year in medical expenses, pain and suffering and work loss costs. And, that doesn’t include the even higher costs associated with adult alcohol abuse.

In Oregon, approximately 66 percent of men and 50 percent of women drink. Nearly six percent of older adults and 20 percent of 18-to 25-year-olds abuse or are dependent on alcohol and need treatment.

And, all of that does not speak to the tremendous loss of potential caused by alcohol use and abuse. To state the obvious, alcohol negatively impacts students’ performance in school and adults’ performance at work. Its costs to relationships, families, our society and our economy are incalculable.

Time to End a “Rite of Passage”

The recent U.S. Surgeon General’s report found that underage drinking is viewed as a rite of passage and facilitated by adults.

I don’t see why we needed the surgeon general to tell us that. It has been considered a “rite of passage” by much of the population for years, including the communities this newspaper serves - but that attitude desperately needs to be changed.

Parents must understand that they are the biggest influence in children’s lives, and the more they talk to their children about the dangers of drugs and underage drinking (and that conversation should start in grade school, the Oregon Partnership emphasizes) the less likely their kids will give in to peer pressure.

Parents who drink more, who exhibit the attitude that drinking is an important part of their lives - if they drink to relax, to have a good time, to reduce stress, to deal with problems that arise - those parents’ children will be more likely to drink - sooner and in greater amounts

And, vice versa. Research shows that parents who don’t drink frequently, or at all, and who talk with their children about why they should not engage in underage drinking or excessive drinking at any age, will have children who are less likely to drink abusively.

“Alcohol is is probably harder for teens to get into an R-rated movie than to get alcohol. It’s a joke.” A 14-year-old boy from California is quoted in a report on underage drinking by the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown University.

The most common place for youth to get alcohol? Their home, or the homes of their friends.


In the face of the U.S. Surgeon General’s “Call to Action to Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking,” which declares that underage drinking is a major public health problem across the United States - and Oregon’s statistics are among the worst - certain ironies are glaring.

I glanced up at the television news while writing this to see Senator Hillary Clinton tossing back “boilermakers” on the campaign trail in Pennsylvania.

Oregon music industry promoters are backing a proposed rule change that would allow teens into more establishments where alcohol is served because “teens who want to listen to live music have little opportunity because they are unable to attend venues where drinking is allowed.” How about providing some live music for teens in a non-drinking venue?

TV shows, web sites, and alcoholic beverage companies recently promoted spring break binge drinking.

During the past holiday season, Kohl’s, the national department store chain with more than 800 locations nationwide - including Portland - sold drinking games involving darts, roulette, and ping pong which promote high-risk drinking. Complaints lodged and publicized by the Oregon Partnership about the sale and promotion of the drinking games caused the retailer to pull the games from the shelves.

The Oregon Partnership points out that the now infamous Oregon legislators’ trips to Hawaii funded by the Oregon Beer and Wine Distributors Association, and campaign contributions by that lobbying group are “part of a bigger problem.”

“This peddling of influence has a profound effect on dealing with one of our top public health issues - underage drinking,” says Judy Cushing, executive director of the Oregon Partnership. “One of the beer industry’s top priorities in Oregon is to prevent the raising of the beer tax, which hasn’t been raised in nearly 30 years in the state, and is one of the very lowest in the nation. We are at the bottom of the barrel on this issue and it’s because of the powerful lobbying by the industry.”

Proceeds from an increase in the beer tax would support alcohol prevention, treatment, recovery and enforcement. Some 17 percent of the alcoholic beverages sold in Oregon are consumed by underage drinkers. States that have higher taxes on beer have been found to have lower death rates among young people involved in alcohol-related accidents.

The simple truth is, we need more citizens and more elected leaders who are willing to take a stand on underage drinking.

source: Clatskanie Chief

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