Keeping a Lid on It

June 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

Alcohol abuse- or just plain use- is often associated with the three leading causes of death in adolescents: automobile accidents; murder; and suicide.

This probably shouldn’t be a surprise given how many news reports contain phrases like “alcohol-related” or “police believe alcohol was involved” in recounting incidents of violence or accidents regardless of the age of those at fault. However, even if youths don’t experience drastic or life-altering situations involving booze, the use of alcohol can result in low(ered) academic performance, deteriorate relationships with family or friends, or contribute to anxiety, depression, or behavioral disorders.

The sale of alcoholic beverages is illegal until the age of 21 in most states. It’s obvious though that most youth are all too familiar with the ubiquity of alcohol use around them- and especially the frequent advertisement of beer and spirits in which the message that alcohol is a key ingredient in having a good time is consistently driven home.

If teens are abusing alcohol then obviously we can do more as a society in terms of prevention since in theory they shouldn’t be having normal access. One study reported that the average age of a first drink is eleven years of age for a boy and thirteen for a girl. Regular use can begin before sixteen. At a time when adolescents are undergoing physical and emotional changes, testing themselves by taking risks, and frequently locking horns with their elders and authority figures- alcohol use can be an attractive choice. The author is not as concerned with use here as much as abuse but for adolescents there is inevitably less experience or knowledge about when “enough is enough”. The medical profession defines excessive alcohol use as more than fourteen drinks per week in males (any age) or more than four per occasion. In females it’s seven drinks per week or more than three per situation. When a teen begins regularly using alcohol to the point of getting drunk frequently and or persists despite negative outcomes (i.e. driving citations, altercations, disputes with family/friends, falling grades in school, dips in health, etc.) there is an obvious problem because it has begun to interfere with other aspects of life. Many adult alcoholics began abusing alcohol as adolescents. The bad behaviors associated with liquor as a teen (i.e. driving under the influence, binge drinking, associating with a group that frequently gets drunk, health declines) can become much more pronounced.

There is a role for many to play in combatting the abuse of alcohol by minors. Parents need to keep up effective communication with their kids about their activities and modeling appropriate behavior in relation to their own alcohol use. Pediatricians have a number of tools and measurements available to detect and prescribe treatment to adolescents when other health concerns may be alcohol-related. Schools and organizations serving kids need more reliable and confidential counseling systems for youth who may find it difficult talking to their parents about abusing alcohol.

Finally, more needs to be done to limit or curtail the ubiquity of alcohol advertising and sponsorship since teens (especially boys watching sports) are bombarded with ads that assert alcohol is the main way to have a good time, be charming to the opposite sex, etc. The Federal Government has limited the types of advertising that can appear on pre-adolescent TV programming. Various private and governmental agencies produce hard hitting anti-tobacco ads. Perhaps similar messages warning about the negatives of alcohol should become part of the advertising rotation.

As to the legal aspects of underage abuse of alcohol, legal sanctions should be increased for those who provide booze to teens or don’t check IDs. A greater emphasis on treatment and education of teen abusers may also be more effective than fines or incarceration

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