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'Nothing social about 9 million alcoholics'

By Nanci E. LangleySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 3, 1980


You've been learning things as you've been growing up. You learned to tie shoelaces (early on and easy) and how to conjugate verbs (later on and harder). You also learned very early in your lives about drinking. A report prepared by the Cambridge and Somerville Program for Alcoholism Rehabilitation in Massachusetts concluded that "drinking is learned by watching parents and other adults. . . . [Children] learn about alcohol and drinking one way or another, whether the information is useful or dangerous, correct or incorrect."

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While most of the millions of Americans who drink are termed "social drinkers ," there is nothing social about the 9 million adult alcoholics or the 1.3 million teen-agers who are known to have serious drinking problems.

Add that 1.3 million to the 24 million high school students who say they've had at least one drink in their lives and you have, alcoholism educators agree, the No. 1 drug problem in the US today.

To think of alcohol as a harmless stimulant, as a safer means of "getting high" than marijuana, or as a way of covering up problems, is wrong. It just won't work.

"Alcohol is more dangerous than heroin," says Ross Fishman of the National Council on Alcoholism, ". . . It is important to see it (alcohol) within the larger context of drugs, as a sedative, or as hypnotic, or a depressant."

Teen-age drinking is a concern not only because it is illegal for most teens to drink but because it may seriously limit a person's ability to make sound decisions, learn how to solve problems, and to resolve conflicts.

One key area where decisionmaking is of great importance is deciding when a person is mentally alert enough to drive responsibly. More than 8,000 teen-agers are killed annually in alcohol-related traffic accidents with another 40,000 injured. And here's a curious note:

A study by the National Public Service Research Institute found that more than one half of the teen-agers involved in alcohol-related accidents had blood-level concentrations of .02 percent. Now .02 percent is the level usually recorded after about one drink. However, .10 percent is legally defined as the level of intoxication. In other words, these kids were legally sober!

Did you know that one 12-ounce can of beer (that includes light beer) has about one ounce of pure alcohol, or about the same amount of alcohol as a mixed drink?

In another survey, 65 percent of students interviewed felt they could drive "just fine" after three or four drinks. Some even felt they could drive better. A Michigan study, however, found that people who drink (even that one can of beer) and then drive, have a three to four times greater risk of having an accident.

Then, there is all the proven information about what alcohol, as a drug, does to disturb and imbalance normal body functions. Yet, as you high schoolers know , most adults you know drink, and most of them who drink drive after having done so. That is, they endanger themselves twice. The obvious question for you to ask is this:

If the drinking of beer, wine, and liquor is so dangerous, why do so many adults do it?

Researchers have come up with a set of reasons why high-school age kids drink. Maybe there are some clues in this list why adults ignore all flashing danger signs and plunge recklessly ahead.

* Curiosity; they want to experiment.

* Pressure from friends and influence via mass media.

* Alcohol is perceived as a means of escape from problems.

* Alcohol is relatively inexpensive (compared with LSD/angel dust, marijuana) and readily available.

* Drinking fills time.

* For some it's a way to rebel against parental authority; for others, a way to gain adult praise.

* Double standards, particularly with police "winking" at offenders.

* Insufficient communication with parents and other adults.

Interestingly enough, there is very little evidence that kids drink because they like the taste. In "Kids & Booze," the author, Wilbur Cross, quotes a teen-ager who said, "You have to learn to like the flavor of most drinks. Like drinking coffee. You're not born with a liking for it."

However, to abstain from alcohol, which means choosing not to drink, requires self-respect, self-control, maturity, and enough self-confidence to stand out from the crowd.