Campaign against teen drinking urged Officials say they want to see program aimed at youths.

August 20, 1991|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Evening Sun Staff

Teen-age alcohol abuse showed modest declines in the 1980s, and officials now want an all-out campaign aimed at convincing teens to refrain entirely from drinking.

They note that public campaigns against illicit street drugs and drunken-driving have won young converts, but underage drinking itself has not declined as sharply.

They say alcohol remains a serious concern because teens are far more likely to use alcohol than any other drug.

According to a recent University of Michigan study, the proportion of high school seniors who said they drank during the preceding month dropped from a peak of 72 percent in 1980 to 57 percent in 1990.

The number of seniors who said they drank heavily during the previous two weeks fell from a high of 41 percent in 1983 to 32 percent last year. By comparison, the number of seniors who reported taking at least one illicit drug (such as marijuana or cocaine) during the past year dropped from a peak of 54 percent in 1979 to 33 percent in 1990, according to the study.

Last year, 27 percent of the seniors reported marijuana use; 9 percent said they had abused prescription stimulants; 5.3 percent reported cocaine use; and 1.9 percent said they had used crack, a highly potent cocaine derivative.

The decline in alcohol use among high school seniors is an "encouraging" sign, said Jerald G. Bachman, one of three researchers involved in the Michigan study. The study pointed out, however, that the decline is "modest" when compared with the larger drop in illicit drug use.

In Maryland, drug and alcohol use peaked in the mid-1980s and currently appears to be declining, said Melody Ryan, spokeswoman for the Governor's Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission.

"We're beginning to see a decrease in adolescent drinking," Ryan said.

In a 1984-1985 survey of high school seniors in Maryland, 66 percent reported being current users of alcoholic beverages. In the 1988-1989 survey, however, that number had dropped to 60.2 percent.

The number of teens entering alcohol treatment programs in the past two years has risen, she noted. That increase may be the result of a greater effort to get teens with drinking problems into treatment programs, she said.

Still, state drug abuse leaders say more should be done to combat under-age drinking.

For years, they have tried -- with some success -- to get young drinkers off the highways, where they caused deadly accidents.

Nationally, alcohol-related traffic deaths for 16- to 20-year-old drivers fell by 23 percentage points from 1980 to 1990, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Fifty-three percent of the young drivers who died in car accidents in 1980 had illegally high blood-alcohol levels, compared with 30 percent last year.

Now, however, antidrug leaders need to go a step further -- they need to tell teens that they should not drink at all and that alcohol is a drug fraught with dangers, said Michael Gimbel, director of Baltimore County's substance-abuse office.

The public was reminded of those dangers last week when a 15-year-old Texas boy died from an alcohol overdose after an "all-you-can-drink" party in Salisbury on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Brian C. Ball, who was visiting relatives in Salisbury, downed numerous shots of vodka at the party, police said.

"The reduction in teen drunk-driving fatalities isn't because teens have stopped drinking. It's because of changing driving patterns and the use of designated drivers," said Chuck Hurley, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is funded by insurance companies.

A designated driver is someone who agrees to remain sober and drive his drinking friends home after a party or a night on the town.

Raising the legal drinking age to 21 for all alcoholic beverages and tougher penalties for drunken driving also played a part in getting young drunk drivers off the roads in the 1980s.

Maryland State Police statistics show a decline in the number of minors charged with drunken driving during the last two years.

Although deaths from drunken driving accidents are far more common, some youths do die from alcohol overdoses, as did Brian Ball.

In 1987, the most recent year for which statistics are available, people from 15 to 24 years old accounted for 21 of the 347 alcohol overdose deaths nationwide, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Teens view "social drinking" differently from adults, counselors said.

Social drinking for adults may mean downing a couple of drinks during the course of an evening, but for teens the term often refers to excessive drinking at parties.

But making drinking less acceptable among teens will take work, counselors admit.

Sometimes adults have trouble convincing teens not to drink, Gimbel said.

Although they view as dangerous such drugs as heroin and cocaine, some parents are ambivalent about legal alcoholic beverages, which they themselves may consume.

Gimbel offers these tips to parents who want to set a good example: Don't let your children see you drunk, don't drive when you're drunk and don't say you're drinking to forget a "rough day."

Teens, after all, have rough days, too, he said.

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