Fight teen drinking from the outside

August 23, 2006|By DEBRA FURR-HOLDEN

A liquor store on almost every corner; kids walk past it every day. Teens play basketball in a schoolyard; nearby, older men hang out, drinking and carousing. Kids frolic in a tot lot; broken liquor bottles litter the entrance. Advertisements for alcohol are everywhere. Not surprisingly, some neighborhood children start drinking in their early teens. Others feel the pressure and follow suit in a few years. And we blame the kids.

This is the urban version I've seen in Baltimore of the alcohol environment that American kids grow up in. It might look a little different in the suburbs or rural areas, but the enticements, inducements and pressures are similar everywhere.

When considering how to prevent use of the No. 1 drug of choice for youth - alcohol - people usually think of awareness programs that tell teens and their parents why underage drinking is bad. Such individual behavioral approaches may be common, but the newest, most promising means is changing the overall environment where problems take root, thereby protecting whole populations.

As any parent knows, trying to change the behavior of a teenager can be very difficult. So, rather than attempting to keep each one of our nation's teens out of harm's way, environmental strategies try to keep harm out of millions of teens' way.

This week in Baltimore, 1,500 health officials, law enforcers, community members, researchers and teens are gathering at the world's largest underage-drinking-prevention conference, sponsored by the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The focus will be how to change the alcohol environment for young people. Some of the tactics discussed at the conference may seem fairly routine, such as cracking down on liquor stores that sell to minors and breaking up underage drinking parties. But the strategies behind these tactics are aimed at changing the widespread cultural acceptance of underage drinking by targeting the culture - or the environment - itself.

My work involves mapping strategies within communities to pinpoint the physical relationship among alcohol sales outlets, alcohol-related crimes and arrests, schools and parks, and other places where young people congregate. If a causal relation among these targets can be shown, then local governments, police and community groups could promote and enact policy changes to the community environment, such as enforcing bans on drinking in public, enacting moratoriums on new liquor licenses, holding problem alcohol outlets accountable and working with schools and businesses to abate loitering and other public nuisances.

Meanwhile, governments, police and communities are at work around the country developing and implementing laws to deter underage drinking parties. These involve changing the environment where teen drinking occurs by targeting out-of-control parties. The strategy isn't to educate kids not to party, but to alter the high-risk environment by holding party hosts and adults who furnish alcohol accountable.

Still other work involves how to prevent alcohol retailers, wholesalers and producers from selling and marketing alcohol to teens. Research shows that minors can purchase alcohol fairly easily, and they are inundated by advertising and marketing of alcohol.

Environmental strategies for controlling alcohol-related problems are controversial because they involve businesses that produce, market and sell alcohol - businesses focused on making a living, not on curing social ills. Moreover, alcohol is a popular, legal product that can be consumed in a safe manner by adults. Marketing and selling it aren't inherently bad, but the environment created by some sales and marketing practices, and the density of outlets, have been suggested as the cause of problems.

Various segments of the alcohol industry would prefer that the prevention of alcohol problems focus on individual behaviors, not on the environment where production, sales, marketing and large-scale consumption take place. But scientists cannot ignore the environment in which a problem occurs just because it might be controversial. Nor can lawmakers, law enforcers and advocates ignore promising, research-based solutions that could help solve pernicious problems in their communities.

Too often, our society seeks to remedy its problems by concentrating on the individual with the problem, not on the environment where the problem germinates and spreads. This may solve problems for some individuals, but not for our communities or our society.

Debra Furr-Holden, a research scientist at Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, won a 2006 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists for her work on environmental strategies for violence, alcohol and other drug prevention. Her e-mail is

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