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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sue Lani Madsen: A teachable moment on teen drinking

Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

It’s been a gut-wrenching week for anyone following the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings and a teachable moment to discuss community norms and parents’ role in underage drinking.

That’s the focus of the 64 Community Prevention Wellness Initiative coalitions funded by the state of Washington. These coalitions tackle prevention with a local focus.

Spokane County has two: the East Valley Community Coalition in the East Valley School District and the West Spokane Wellness Partnership centered around the West Central Neighborhood. In each community, the coalition relies on local data from the biannual statewide Healthy Youth Survey. Publicizing school-specific results affirming a majority of youth are avoiding alcohol, marijuana, tobacco and other drugs is one way of creating positive peer pressure and a new community norm for teens and parents.

Annie Murphey, coordinator for both Spokane coalitions, turned to prevention work after years in social services. Reacting was no longer enough, and Murphey turned to building partnerships for prevention. After using the data to identify a local prescription and nonprescription drug abuse problem, the Spokane coalitions are co-sponsoring drug take-back events with the Spokane Opioid Task Force on Oct. 20 at West Central Community Center and Oct. 27 at Spokane Valley CHAS Clinic.

For Darren Mattozzi, coordinator for the Reardan-Edwall Communities Alliance for Prevention, the death of his brother at the hands of a drunk driver compelled him to pursue prevention work. The Reardan-Edwall alliance is working to change a rural culture that says it’s safer to let your kids drink at home because you know where they are and can hold their car keys.

The Reardan-Edwall alliance started its work six years ago, raising awareness with a Washington Drug Free Youth chapter at Reardan High School.

“The majority of our teens don’t drink, and that peer message is important for adolescents,” Mattozzi said.

When teenagers start drinking before the age of 15, they are more likely to develop problem behaviors later, according to NIH public health studies. Too often early, easy access to alcohol is provided by parents with the best of intentions.

Researchers from the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation prevention research center identify three reasons parents act as social hosts for teen drinking. Some believe teaching the appropriate use of alcohol at home will be protective for their children as adults. The second group believes hosting is the best way to protect underage drinkers by intercepting drunk driving and monitoring consumption. A third reason is peer pressure – not from the teenagers, but from a community norm among parents that says it’s no big deal. And all three rationalizations are wrong.

A study published in January in the Lancet, a prestigious international medical journal, investigated the “association of parental supply of alcohol with adolescent drinking, alcohol-related harms and alcohol use disorder symptoms.” The conclusion was straightforward. There is no benefit to parents hosting teen drinking. Not in more responsible use as an adult, not in reduced physical harm as a teen.

“Kids who drink at home with permission drink more and more heavily than kids who know their parents’ expectation is they wait until they are legal at 21,” Mattozzi said.

It’s a fine line to walk, keeping communication open for a late-night phone call from a drunk kid who needs a ride while being clear about boundaries. It’s why the Spokane and Lincoln county coalitions offer evidence-based parenting communication programs like Strengthening Families, Love and Logic and Guiding Good Choices.

The impact on developing brains is a major public health concern. While there are laws in Washington addressing furnishing alcohol to a minor, there are no penalties for parents providing the party house. But instead of a legislative solution, the Reardan-Edwall alliance is using a different approach: a resolution of positive community values instead of an ordinance.

The Reardan-Edwall alliance’s resolution has been adopted by the school district, the town and the county. It reinforces research behind the negative effects of underage use of alcohol and marijuana and tells local law enforcement the community – or at least a significant portion of it – will have their back when they enforce existing laws on a popular drinking party.

It’s not just teens and parents who are influenced by community norms and peer pressure.

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