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Safe and Healthy Celebrations: Give the Gift of Prevention


Overindulging has long been associated with celebrations and holidays, a tradition that includes risky drinking and a loosening of limits that people usually place on their own behavior and what they tolerate in children and teens. Not surprisingly, holiday weekends result in sharp increases in alcohol-impaired highway crashes, emergency department visits, and other alcohol-fueled incidents that are no cause for celebration.

Perhaps young people follow the lead of adults who are engaging in excessive drinking. Or maybe they merely take advantage of unsupervised, unstructured time away from school to experiment with alcohol and other things they may not yet recognize as posing serious threats to their well-being. Whatever the cause, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has found that minors are more likely to begin drinking in December, June, or July than during other months. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) consistently reminds us, “Teens are at far greater risk of death in an alcohol-related crash than the overall population, despite the fact they cannot legally purchase or publicly possess alcohol in any State.”

All of you who have worked so hard to stop underage drinking have valuable progress to celebrate as 2012 ends. As reported in SAMHSA’s 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, “Past month, binge, and heavy drinking rates among underage persons declined between 2002 and 2011. Past month alcohol use declined from 28.8 to 25.1 percent, while binge drinking declined from 19.3 to 15.8 percent, and heavy drinking declined from 6.2 to 4.4 percent.” In addition, a new report that analyzed data from the 1991–2011 national Youth Risk Behavior Surveys found that, in that decade, the national prevalence of self-reported drinking and driving among high school students age 16 years and older declined by 54 percent, from 22.3 to 10.3 percent.

More cause for celebration is the growing collection of evidence-based environmental prevention strategies that have been shown to be effective in keeping underage youth away from alcohol, not just on special occasions, but throughout the entire year. During 2012, many of you hosted Town Hall Meetings where community members were introduced to these population-level-change approaches and got behind local and state efforts to put effective policies in place. Social host ordinances, compliance checks, restrictions on outlet density and hours of sale, sobriety checkpoints, and many other proven ways to combat underage drinking are making a difference in many of your communities, thanks to your effort and commitment. Other 2012 Town Hall Meetings equipped parents and adult caregivers with the facts about underage drinking and its consequences and prepared them to use their powerful influence to convince children in their care to avoid alcohol until they are legally and developmentally old enough to drink and have the knowledge and skills to make appropriate drinking decisions.

Last year we wrote, “If all grownups created holiday wish lists at this time of year, the health and safety of children would surely be one of their most frequent requests.” Surely this is just as true today; the difference now is that we have moved closer to that goal since last year’s holiday celebrations, and we have learned more about how to keep the momentum going.