TEEN DRINKING. SOUTH - AND NORTH - OF THE BORDER. In United States. Young Americans also need support to protect them from an array of alcohol-related problems.
Westfield, N.J. — `HAMMERED'' or ``wasted'' or ``ripped.'' ``Spent'' or ``blasted.'' That is what a lot of teen-agers said they ``got'' last weekend. Alcohol continues to be the No. 1 drug used and abused by young people in America. Latest studies show that although overall drug use among America's youth has gone down, alcohol has remained constant.
``It's the only drug that has not dropped,'' says Dick Bast of the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol Information, in Rockville, Md. He cites several reasons:
Parents are pleased to know that their kids are not doing other drugs.
Alcohol is not hard to come by.
Their parents drink, so they drink themselves.
Society's feeling toward it is that ``it's OK.''
Alcohol is ``often minimized because it is legalized for adults, accepted socially, and seen all over society,'' says Pat Belmont, youth coordinator of New Jersey's Division of Alcoholism. ``We like to stress that [alcohol] be included with just as much force in the [drug] prevention programs.''
Ms. Belmont suggests that because people - adults and children - sometimes don't think of alcohol in conjunction with other drugs, ``We're fighting a bigger battle.''
Why do teens drink? Commonly given reasons include boredom, peer pressure, rebellion, imitation of adult behavior, relief of emotion, or doing it ``just for the feeling.''
But ``there's no one reason,'' says Al Brand, a 17-year-old from Westfield, N.J. ``Everybody has a different reason. It's something to do. It's a pastime. People have been drinking ever since alcohol was invented.''
``Personally I feel advertising is a real issue,'' comments Lloyd Johnston, program director with the Institute of Social Research at the University of Michigan, who has researched teen-age drinking.
``When you have use of a drug - with clearly damaging effects on individuals and society - that for historical reasons is legal, to promote its use with advertising does affect the norm and perceived desirability.''
American children between the ages of 2 and 18 see something like 100,000 television commercials for beer, according to the National Council on Alcoholism. Commercials feature sports stars and actors - and rock groups and cute little dogs.
Beer is not only advertising's darling, but the favorite drink of many teens as well. But some question how long beer will remain No. 1.
Wine coolers, relatively new products, are becoming increasingly popular among young people.
``Wine coolers appeal to people who don't like the taste of alcohol,'' comments Christine Lubinski, Washington representative of the National Council on Alcohol.
``Industry research shows a significant number of people who switched from non-alcoholic beverages to wine coolers. Wine cooler companies see the whole beverage market as their competition. They're competing with Coca-Cola, orange juice, and milk,'' she points out.
``I was at this party once and there was a whole wall of wine coolers,'' says Dan Haag, a 16-year-old senior of Westfield. ``They taste a lot better, so I can see why they might get [a teen] started on drinking.''
Another concern is the way kids drink, says Ms. Lubinski. It's not like they get together in couples at a cocktail party. Kids don't drink every day. But when they do, they tend to binge. For many, drinking to intoxication is the norm.
Dr. Johnston concurs:
``Drunkenness is a particular problem. It's a major source of fatalities among teens.'' Close to 37 percent of high school seniors have had five or more drinks in a row within the past two weeks, he says.
``At the same time we need to face reality that they will drink anyway,'' says Lubinski. We need to give more specific guidelines as to the risks involved, she says.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, teen-agers who drink, in comparison with nondrinking youth, have a greater chance of becoming involved with other drugs and of becoming heavy drinkers later.
The institute also reports that most adolescent substance users are unaware or unconcerned about the dependency that can result from alcohol use.
``If one message is getting through to kids, it's `just don't drink and drive,''' observes Lubinski. But what does that say? Go ahead and get bombed if you're not driving? she asks.
Drunken-driving fatalities have decreased somewhat in the past year, and some speculate that public awareness campaigns are working. Others say it is too early to predict a trend.
Still, whether or not responsible drinking should be promoted - and the success of the prevention programs for teens - are widely debated.
Dan Haag joined the group SADD, Students Against Driving Drunk, in his junior high school, where three students were killed in a drunken-driving accident.
``I would say that the awareness is growing,'' he says. ``Almost half the school joined [SADD].''
Says George Marcelle, spokesman for the National Council on Alcoholism:
``What's needed are successful prevention efforts and policy changes - education, community policy - groups such as MADD [Mothers Against Drunk Driving], SADD - that reinforce awareness.
``There's not one single strategy here. There must be cooperative efforts - grass-roots programs along with the law, and public and social policy changes.''