Treat binge drinking as a drug problem

This just in: The use of illegal drugs by young people declined again last year. That's got to be a relief to parents. But what about underage binge drinking, which remains about the same? Parents should be equally concerned about this stubborn trend.

Parental attitude, apparently, has a lot to do with why drug use among youth continues to decline (to 9.9 percent last year compared with 11.6 percent in 2002), but binge drinking among young people ages 12 to 20 remains about twice that (18.8 percent). These figures were released yesterday by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Communities trying to keep kids away from alcohol say many parents simply don't treat that danger as seriously as they do drugs. Just listen to Kristy Pesicka, a supervisor at Prairie View Prevention Services, which places a substance abuse counselor in every high school and middle school in Sioux Falls, S.D. She says that when parents find out their kids have been drinking, "Some of them are relieved they aren't using drugs. 'It's just alcohol.' "

But it's not just alcohol. Experts know a lot more about kids and booze than they did 10 years ago. For instance, those who start drinking before age 15 are five times more likely to develop serious alcohol problems later on. Kids are drinking a lot earlier, and it's no longer mostly a problem for boys. And underage drinking involves large quantities (binge drinking is defined as having five or more drinks within a couple of hours). That's a potentially addictive and toxic load to put on a young person, and it can lead to death.

It was a string of such deaths earlier this year that caused South Dakota – the state with the second highest underage, binge-drinking rate after North Dakota – to start a parent-focused campaign in June. After a public outcry over the alcohol-related fatalities, state officials got together and came to two conclusions: They needed to step up prosecution of those who illegally provide alcohol to minors; and parents needed to become much more involved. School antidrug and anti-alcohol programs are undermined if laws aren't adequately enforced and parents take a cavalier attitude toward drinking as a rite of passage – truisms that extend far beyond South Dakota.

For starters, parents need to understand the dangers of mixing young people and alcohol – that it can harm health and mental capacity. And they need to clue-in on the wide availability of alcohol (and drugs). A recent survey by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse shows parents to be widely ignorant about the presence of alcohol and drugs at even supervised parties.

And parents need to examine their own behavior. If there's one thing kids pick up on, it's hypocritical advice from a "do as I say, not as I do" parent. Alcohol in the US seems requisite for holidays, sporting events, celebrations. Parents must show their kids that joy and stimulation come from nonalcohol activities. They need to talk consistently about alcohol with their kids and other parents, and supervise consistently.

As any community knows, parents can be a force of nature when their concern is aroused. They need to become as concerned about alcohol as they are about drugs.

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