The epidemic of underage drinking is here

By Natrona County School District Dec 8, 2013

By First Lady Carol Mead

First Lady Carol Mead pictureUnderage drinking is an epidemic in Wyoming. Surveys report that 23 percent of Wyoming kids have had their first drink by the time they’re just 13 years old, and nearly 20 percent of the alcohol sold in Wyoming is consumed by minors. It’s happening.

As a mother of two teenage kids, I know that avoiding risky behaviors, like drinking, is hard for kids. I also know that all parents must take a zero-tolerance policy toward our children consuming alcohol because it’s illegal. It’s also paramount to their short-term and long-term health.

Underage drinking is a leading factor in the top three causes of death among youth in Wyoming: automobile crashes, homicides and suicides. In fact, between 2008 and 2012, 78 Wyomingites between the ages of 15 and 24 years old died in alcohol-related car accidents.

Experts estimate that in 2009 two homicides, 1,300 nonfatal violent crimes, such as rape and assault, and 3,000 property crimes could be directly attributed to minors under the influence of alcohol.

We also know that underage drinking has serious impacts on the brain development of children. Recent studies suggest that alcohol adversely affects the parts of the developing brain associated with learning and memory and can cause permanent brain damage. And since the brain isn’t fully developed until a person reaches his or her mid-twenties, permanent impairment can occur right up until and beyond when a person reaches the legal drinking age of 21.

Because of these statistics and the countless heart-wrenching stories I’ve heard about teens and alcohol, I have taken on underage drinking as part of my children’s initiative as First Lady. In November, I led a charity team of 10 runners from Wyoming in the ING New York City Marathon. Our team raised over $35,000 for the Wyoming Remember the Eight Endowment, which is named to honor the eight University of Wyoming student athletes who tragically lost their lives in a drunk driving accident in 2001.

The permanent endowment is new and will support programs for the prevention of the misuse of alcohol among high school and college students through a competitive grant process. Individual students and student organizations from the University of Wyoming, community colleges, and Wyoming high schools that are taking leadership roles to prevent alcohol abuse among high school and college students are eligible to apply. Eligible projects include alcohol education programs, events and student research projects. I hope that this program will empower students all over the state to influence their peers to make responsible choices around alcohol.

I also hope to reach parents through my work because recent focus groups right here in Wyoming show that kids are listening to their parents. I am spokesperson for a media campaign through the Prevention Management Organization of Wyoming and the Wyoming Department of Health called Talk Early and Often.  This hard-hitting campaign is aimed at Wyoming parents to encourage them to begin talking with their kids early in their teen or even tween years about the dangers of alcohol use and to talk to them frequently about it.  The campaign consists of radio and TV ads, as well as a comprehensive website at www.talkearlyandoften.org.

Eradicating an epidemic isn’t easy. Preventing underage drinking in Wyoming will take all of us. Please join me in the effort.

This article was originally published in the For Your Kids’ Health e-newsletter, a project by Wyoming Medical Center and Natrona County School District. Find more articles and health tips for children of all ages by clicking on For Your Kids’ Health from The Pulse’s homepage.

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