Other voices: Have the alcohol talk before high school

Published 12:23 am Saturday, August 20, 2016

The StarNews of Wilmington on the role of parents in preventing underage drinking:

When state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commissioner Jim Gardner visited with us last week at the StarNews, we were going to ask about the better customer service we’ve witnessed in ABC stores, and the popularity of small-batch liquors that line the shelves.

What we got instead was a straight shot of sobering numbers on the toll of underage drinking in North Carolina:

—During 2012, an estimated 36 traffic fatalities and 1,487 nonfatal traffic injuries were attributable to driving after underage drinking;

—In 2012, underage drinking played a role in 31 homicides, 15,600 nonfatal violent crimes, 31,600 property crimes, and 592,000 public-order crimes.

—In 2013, an estimated 735 teen pregnancies and 26,678 teens having high-risk sex were attributable to underage drinking.

Yeah, we’ve got a problem.

Gardner shares this insight:

“North Carolina has an underage drinking problem. And what’s worse? Our state’s children think underage drinking is a much bigger problem than their parents do.”

The former lieutenant governor (1989-1993) and one of the founders of the Hardee’s restaurant business set about to change that.

When Gov. Pat McCrory appointed him to lead the ABC Commission in 2013, Gardner was specifically asked to address the state’s underage drinking problem. In December 2014, the ABC Commission launched Talk It Out, “a multimedia campaign designed to raise awareness of the issue, and to give parents the right tools for talking to kids about the dangers of underage drinking.”

Similar initiatives had struggled for lack of funding. The commission addressed that by paying for Talk it Out with ABC store sales revenue. Gardner said that if the state is going to be in the business of selling alcoholic beverages, it should be responsible for trying to curb abuse.

The ads for the campaign are short, stark and deadly serious. While the messages of the ads are tough, they also are smart. Instead of moralizing, the campaign lays out cold, hard facts — and they are not pretty.

Planning on waiting until high school before talking to your teens about alcohol? Bad idea. Kids are learning about drinking in elementary school, and starting to experiment with alcohol in middle school.

Think your child is going to make rational decisions about alcohol or take just a few sips? Think again — and help them think. (That is a key piece of the strategy).

It is well documented that because of the way the brain matures, areas that drive thrill-seeking, risky decision-making and impulsiveness outweigh the work of the still-immature frontal cortex, which provides the ability to understand future consequences of immediate actions.

In other words, your child’s brain is already extra susceptible to doing something risky, such as drinking or getting in a car with someone who is drinking. And if he or she use alcohol, the risks are greatly compounded.

Because of how the immature (up to age 25) brain works, even the smartest and best-behaved youth are at risk of making some very bad decisions about alcohol. In addition to it being against the law, there’s very little chance that a teenager can safely use alcohol.

With alcohol so prevalent in society and the brain not yet up to the task of making good decisions, it’s up to parents to be the difference-makers. In fact, 75 percent of teenagers say it’s parents, not peers, who can make the most difference on alcohol use. Ironically, 60 percent of parents surveyed felt their children’s peer had the most influence.

That’s one reason the Talk It Out campaign has targeted parents and aims to give them the resources they need to protect their children.

The website is packed with useful and very specific information. Instead of simply saying underage drinking is bad so don’t do it, the program urges parents to use hard evidence, like the section on the brain.

We think Talk It Out would be perfect for groups that work with parents and with youth, such as churches, athletic leagues, scouts and PTAs.

Gardner said that when he first saw the ads, he thought they might be too tough. He changed his mind, however, after getting feedback from a parent who had lost a child to underage drinking.

Yes, she said, the ads are tough. But not nearly as tough and devastating as having a stranger contact you to tell you that your child has died from an alcohol-related incident.

Learn more at www.talkitoutnc.org — and please share what you learn.