Underage drinking is one of the most dangerous problems facing teenagers today, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, alcohol is the most commonly used and abused drug among youth in the United States, more than tobacco and illegal drugs combined.
In an effort to educate teens and young adults of these serious consequences and prevent them in the future, the Coalition for a Drug Free Dale County of SpectraCare Health Systems held an underage drinking town hall forum in Daleville May 13.
The CDC reports that youth ages 12-20 drink 11 percent of all alcohol consumed in the United States. More than 90 percent of this alcohol is consumed in the form of binge drinks.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that alcohol is responsible for about 5,000 deaths among underage youth each year.
The event informed parents and adults of ways that they can help prevent underage drinking among young people.
Candy Gaff, coalition coordinator, said preparing teenagers to make safe decisions is something the community must work together on.
“It’s not something one person can solve,” Gaff said. “It takes a big group of people—the community."
However, Gaff said the process of helping young people understand the consequences of underage drinking, which can include drunk driving, rape and sexual assault, as well as permanent brain damage, must begin at home.
Jeremy Varney, juvenile probation officer with Dale County Juvenile Court Services, said parents must lead by example and clearly communicate to their children what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. They must also encourage positive activities, such as playing team sports, performing well in school, and having a strong relationship with their parents.
“It’s about parenting,” he said. “It’s about taking the time to know what’s going on in your kid’s life. We have to make sure our priorities are our children and that we are taking the time to care for them.”
Constant supervision is another very important factor, especially on social media sites. Varney said young people frequently learn about parties and social events where alcohol and drugs are available to underage users through social networking.
Gaff said one way parents can combat this use of the internet is through the Safe Homes network, a closed Facebook group that helps parents stay in contact with each other in order to prevent unsupervised events that can endanger young people’s lives.
Lisa Rawlings, a registered nurse and assistant administrator of quality medical affairs for Dale Medical Center, said one of the most serious consequences of underage drinking is the effect it has on the brain.
Alcohol affects the brain’s impulse control and decision making processes, and in extreme situations, can cause long-lasting and even permanent damage.
“Drinking, especially binge drinking, an cause alterations in the brain that are permanent in the development of the structure of the brain,” she said.
Rawlings said the brain is not fully developed until a person’s mid 20s, which makes alcohol intake even at the age of 21 risky, Rawlings said.
Alcohol abuse in underage drinkers also frequently leads to unsafe sexual behavior and, particularly in young women, an increased susceptibility to rape and sexual assault.
Additionally, Rawlings said heavy alcohol usage damages a young person’s ability to naturally release dopamine, the brain chemical that releases the feeling of pleasure.
“They have to go back to that alcohol to give them that feeling, or to ever feel good again,” she said.
Varney said alcohol is the “gateway” substance to harder drugs.
Varney said there is a popular misconception that marijuana is a stepping stone to drug addiction.
“That is absolutely false,” Varney said. “Alcohol is a gateway drug. The majority of the kids that wind up in juvenile court have dealt with or are dealing with some kind of substance abuse, and that usually starts with alcohol.”
Varney said 90 percent of all kids that use marijuana previously used alcohol, as it is easier to obtain than marijuana, and can often be accessed at home.
Drinking often changes a young person’s behavior, Varney said. It also often leads to involvement in criminal acts.
Varney said the number one correlation to delinquency is truancy, or absence from school. The last murders in the Dale County area were committed by juveniles were attributed to truancy, Varney said.
Although the forums may not produce large-scale change, Gaff said saving just one life is more than enough.
“If we prevent one kid from getting in that car after they’ve been drinking and getting in an accident and getting killed, then we’ve done our job,” Gaff said.
For more information about the Coalition for a Drug Free Dale County or the resources available to parents, contact Gaff at 445-4554.
In addition to Varney and Rawlings, other guest speakers at the town hall forum were Dr. Mariel Clark, clinical psychologist with the Center for Counseling and HumanDevelopment ; agent Tracy J. Von Hollen, Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board; Jenna Mack, State Farm Insurance agent; and Capt. Mason Bynum, Dale County Sheriff’s Office.