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It takes more than teaching teens

WILLMAR -- It takes a comprehensive approach -- education, policy change and enforcement -- for communities to reduce the rate of alcohol and drug abuse by youths, a state expert told a Willmar audience on Thursday.

"Don't think we can teach our way out of this, because we can't," said Jay Jaffee, chemical health coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Health.

Nearly 80 people showed up Thursday night to hear Jaffee present some of the latest evidence-based information on underage drinking, binge drinking and prescription and over-the-counter drug misuse among adolescents.

The event marks the kick-off this fall of efforts by the Kandiyohi County Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Coalition to reduce underage drinking and drug abuse among local teens.

"Hopefully we will see some community norms change," said Ann Stehn, director of Kandiyohi County Public Health and a member of the coalition.

Alcohol is "far and away" the drug of choice among young people, both in Minnesota and nationally, Jaffee said.

By some estimates, between 11 and 20 percent of all alcohol consumed in the United States is drunk by underage consumers, he said.

The sheer number of underage drinkers makes it the leading issue for communities to address, Jaffee said. "You can take all the other drugs and add them up, and they don't equal alcohol."

Especially alarming is the growing incidence of binge drinking -- defined as consuming five or more drinks at one time.

The rate of binge drinking hasn't changed but the number of episodes has gone up significantly, Jaffee said. From 1993 to 2001, binge drinking episodes increase from 1.2 billion to 1.5 billion, he said. Nationally, almost 42 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds report binge drinking, he said.

"This is becoming what's perceived as the norm for young people," he said.

Consequences can include poor school performance, arguments and being sexually taken advantage of, he said. "I think it's pretty clear this has an impact."

Misuse of prescription and over-the-counter drugs is less prevalent than alcohol, but it's also a growing problem, compounded by pharmaceutical marketing and consumer reliance on a "quick fix" for their ills, Jaffee said.

What can communities do? Scare tactics are often tried -- but these don't get through to young people, Jaffee said. "They don't see themselves in those situations."

Education and awareness are important ingredients, but these don't work either if they're used in isolation, he said.

The most successful track records have occurred with comprehensive strategies that involve policymaking and enforcement to help alter community norms and make alcohol and drugs less available to kids.

Jaffee points to tobacco as an example of how norms have changed. In the early 1960s, cigarette ads were common on television. Half the U.S. adult population smoked and there were few, if any, restrictions on secondhand smoke.

Today cigarette advertising is banned on TV, Minnesota has state laws that prohibit indoor smoking in public places, and the smoking rate has declined to fewer than 20 percent of adults.

"Norms can change and they do change," Jaffee said.

He urged parents at Thursday's meeting to push for accountability and to become informed.

"We've got to communicate to everybody. We've got to get the same message and we've got to be persistent about it," he said.

Jaffee said after the meeting that he was impressed by the size of the turnout Thursday night.

"Probably the first step is figuring out how ready is the community to start addressing the issues," he said. "I think you guys have a good start."