Changing Oregon’s Underage Drinking Culture

The best story I’ve ever heard about preventing underage drinking has to do with a cigarette. It was told to me by a Portland area woman wanting to prove a point with her teenage son and a couple of his buddies.

While having lunch at a restaurant, the conversation turned to alcohol with the guys griping that it should be legal for them to be able to have a beer or two. In Europe, they argued, teens can drink.

Just then, mom lit up a cigarette. And the guys practically jumped out of their chairs, loudly admonishing her because what she was doing was against the law and besides, how embarrassing for THEM!

The woman proceeded to explain how not very long ago, smoking a cigarette in a restaurant was part of the culture – not only legal, but accepted. Hazardous to your health and a major killer? Nobody really knew that yet or chose to ignore it.

The story has a strong parallel to what is going on in our state with underage drinking. Based on the annual Oregon Healthy Teen Survey, a third of our 8th-graders have consumed alcohol in the past 30 days. If you’re wondering, that’s almost double the national average. Almost half of Oregon 11th-graders drink.

We can sit around and theorize about why this is happening — the rain? Beer ads on TV? Cuts in prevention programs? More stress and peer pressure?

Whatever the reasons, there is no doubt that the culture can be changed, like it was for cigarette smoking (which continues to decline in this country). Look no further than information, education and, above all, parenting.

The prime focus of the statewide “Face It, Parents” campaign is to get into parents’ heads that we have learned more about the workings of the adolescent brain and that we need to teach our kids what we now know.

Thanks to advances in brain scanning technology, we’ve learned that the teenage brain is “under construction” and that alcohol and drugs have more serious and longer-lasting effects. Researchers say that the sooner and more often teens drink, the more likely they will become addicted and have alcohol problems in adulthood.

And those familiar refrains of “Oh, it’s a rite of passage” and “I did it, too” ring dangerously hollow. Our grandparents said the same thing about cigarettes.

Researchers in alcohol and drug prevention also say that parents have more influence on their kids than anyone. But not enough of us are talking early and often to our children about what alcohol and drugs do to their bodies.

Maybe it’s because we think “not my child.” That’s what we hear a lot from parents whose teens — who have never been in trouble before — are arrested for DUII, end up in the hospital, or worse.

And that argument that teens in Europe can drink? European countries continue to deal with a worsening underage drinking epidemic by debating whether to raise the drinking age.

Pete Schulberg, Oregon Partnership

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