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."
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.
In a survey of approximately 800 high school students in the San Francisco area, the students were asked if they used alcohol. About half answered "no." Those who said no were asked, "If you do not use alcohol, what has been the biggest deterrent for not using it?"
About 40 percent replied: "No need; i.e. life is fine, I'm happy, I turn on other ways." The majority of these nondrinkers felt they were satisfied with their lives and couldn't find any reason to drink.
Deciding not to drink and sticking with that decision is not always easy. In the reasons given for why kids drink, the most frequently stated excuse is peer pressure, or the argument "that everyone else is doing it."
Bruce Forester, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, explains, "During the teen years, unfortunately, it becomes most important to be liked by your peers, to follow them, to be one of the guys, even if logically you realize what they're doing is wrong, stupid, or even potentially dangerous."
But what if you don't want to drink? And you want, at the same time, to feel that you are not on the outside looking in. According to discussions between students and alcohol education experts, the answer is learning how to say no and meaning it.
It's pointed out that most people are now comfortable saying no to cigarettes and even going as far as asking others not to light up.
Carol, a young woman quoted in "Kids & Booze," talked about saying no. "You say, 'no thanks,' very firmly but in a positive way, and you don't start making excuses for your decision, or apologize, or look embarrassed."
When asked by another girl in the discussion group what she should do when a date is persistent about drinking, Carol replied, "Say no thanks! If he becomes a pest about it, why keep going out with him?"
In situations where you cannot get rid of someone who is forcing a drink on you, it is important, according to the counselors, to remember your self-respect. There is nothing wrong with leaving a party or excusing yourself from a group of people who refuse to accept your simple "no thank you" to a drink.
Priscilla Quirk, the youth counselor for the Framingham, Mass., Rehabilitation Center tells the students she sees: "A person who doesn't want to drink does so for personal, health, or religious reasons. These reasons are to be respected. Such a person is not a 'chicken' but is someone who has thought about his or her choice."
She feels it is important to practice saying no. Students who believe in themselves have no need "to get drunk." She makes some other important points.
Dealing with peer pressure and learning to effectively say "no thanks" helps when it comes to coping with other problems. A teenager who comes to terms with not drinking has the capability to isolate those things seen as problems and focus his or her full attention on finding the solutions to the problems through personal resources.
Learning to channel curiosity and a need to experiment is another way of avoiding "the drinking traps" that some kids get into through the use of alcohol.
Need some ideas of what to do besides drink? Here are some from "Take the Time," a booklet prepared by the Wisconsin Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Other Drug Information and the University of Wisconsin:
* Adventure and escape -- doing things you haven't done before, going new places, meeting new people.
* Pots and pans -- learning to cook; teaching others to cook.
* Religion -- be active in your church; attend Sunday school.
The list is endless! What is important, alcohol counselors agree, is knowing you are not alone when you choose not to drink.
What makes kids free is their ability to choose. Doing what is right for you is your choice. It is also the way to self-respect.
Editor's note: The Monitor asked Nanci Langley to search the literature on alcohol abuse and problem drinking in US high schools and then to write a report directed specifically to this age group. She said that over and over again the excuse cited by high schoolers was peer pressure.
She found, too, that alcohol education programs across the US were turning from scare stories and emphasis on alcohol as a problem substance to reaching directly to the kids. That counselors have found the "best" method of instruction is to appeal to kids as individuals -- individuals who are free to choose, and who should be supported in every possible way to choose to say "no" to drinking. Cynthia Parsons