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Drink wisely -- taught by whom?

September 01, 2008|Susan Brink | Times Staff Writer

Whether the legal drinking age is 18, 21 or something in between, at some point the odds are better than even that eventually a young adult is going to have that first drink. About 61% of American adults 18 or older said they've had alcohol in the last year, according to a 2006 national survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For the most part, lessons in how to drink come through experimentation with excess, essentially trial and error, exploring how much can be consumed, as young people go through what has become a rite of passage to adulthood.

"It's a forbidden-fruit sort of thing," says Brenda Chabon, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Montefiore Medical Center, New York. "We haven't done a good job on educating kids. We kind of demonize alcohol on one hand and embrace it in another way."

With ignorance as a guide, the long-awaited rite of passage too often ends up with mangled cars and ruined lives.

But whose job is it to teach responsible drinking? Middle and high schools have their hands tied, says Robert Turrisi, professor of biobehavioral health at the Prevention Research Center at Pennsylvania State University. "School-based programs teach abstinence only," he says. "Schools can't legally teach how to do illegal behaviors."

Beginning in elementary school, students are given the simple message that drugs, including alcohol, are forbidden and bad, a message that often conflicts with what they see at home -- parents having a cocktail before dinner or a glass of wine with the meal. If statistics are proof, the anti-alcohol messages have little effect on kids' drinking. A CDC survey last year found that 45% of high school students drank some alcohol in the 30 days before the survey, 26% binge drank, 11% drove after drinking and 29% rode with a driver who had been drinking.

Once kids step on a college campus for the first time, they're surrounded by new freedoms and temptations. The largely ineffective "just say no" message is likely to go right out the window. So lessons in moderate and responsible drinking are up to parents and, increasingly, colleges.

Lessons from home

Parents and families have been the subject of Turrisi's studies. He's found in a 2000 study published in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, for example, that among 266 incoming college freshmen, what they learned at home affected the consequences they experienced after binge drinking. If, in questionnaires, they reported that they had learned that alcohol can be a social lubricant or transform them in good ways, they were more likely to suffer a blackout, headache or hangover or get into a fight or a regrettable sexual situation after heavy drinking. But if they learned at home that drinking was normal behavior, they were less likely to suffer those consequences, despite drinking too much.

Those who had fewer consequences from excess drinking were more likely to have talked to their mothers (the students were more likely to report talking to their mothers than to their fathers, Turrisi found) about such things as how drinking changes behavior, the importance of being able to improve mood without alcohol and the negative health consequences of alcohol abuse.

To help prevent future binges, or the worst consequences of binge drinking, Turrisi says, parents need to talk openly to kids about alcohol, throughout their lives. "Let them know that you understand the reasons why kids like to drink, but teach them the difference between drinking and binge drinking. And be prepared to answer questions about your own drinking behavior."

Those who are in favor of lowering the drinking age point to European cultures in which children are exposed to alcohol -- often in small, diluted quantities -- at early ages at family meals. They argue that drinking at home with parents teaches kids that alcohol is normal and reduces the odds that they'll overindulge when on their own.

But it's important to be sure what's meant by "drinking at home," according to a study in the October 2004 issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health. A survey of 6,200 teenagers in 242 U.S. communities found that the occasional glass of wine at a family dinner can have a protective effect. Kids who reported such moderate drinking at the family table were two-thirds less likely to have engaged in binge drinking in the two weeks before the survey.

But the study also found that parents who were oblivious to the drinking in their homes weren't doing their youngsters any favors. Teens who drank with peers at parties with an adult present were twice as likely to have engaged in binge drinking.

The college effect

Eventually, many of these almost-adults land on college campuses. Whether colleges like it or not, the ball is then in their court.

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