In response to evidence that Americans are beginning to drink at younger ages, anti-alcohol forces are shifting their prevention efforts to younger kids.
Many of those forces came together in Washington, D.C., in late March to launch a national campaign, "Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free," which is aimed at an unusually young set: nine-to-15-year-olds.
Over 110 representatives of national, state and local government agencies, nonprofits, and professional associations joined the spouses of 25 governors in Washington, D.C., to discuss strategies for the multi-year endeavor.
"It is unprecedented for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJ) to be working together," said campaign spokesman Garry Curtis, and "relatively unprecedented" to have governors' spouses working with all levels of government.
Also unusual in the world of national alcohol prevention strategies is the campaign's focus on nine-to-15-year-olds. RWJ has spent several million dollars in recent years on campaigns to reduce underage drinking and to reduce high-risk drinking among college students, but the focus on the younger set is new. "Everyone was up in arms about college binge drinking," explained Joan Hollendonner, senior communications officer at the RWJ Foundation and member of the campaign's Executive Working Group, "but half [of those students] came to college with this [drinking habit] already in place."
The decision to launch the new campaign, Curtis said, was "based on a number of surveys and data points, [causing us to] focus on where children are getting their first introduction to alcohol."
According to the NIAAA's National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiological Survey, 40 percent of children who begin drinking before age 15 will become alcoholics at some point in their lives. If the onset of drinking is delayed five years, says the study, an adolescent's risk of serious alcohol problems is decreased by 50 percent.
Governors' spouses were brought into the campaign because, according to Hollendonner, alcohol abuse is not as popular an issue as tobacco or illicit drugs, and governors' spouses have shown that they can capture the public's attention. "They're wonderful. ... They're very sophisticated," she said.
But exactly what form this campaign will take is difficult to say for two reasons: Much of the work is left to a diverse array of state and local programs, leaving the role of sharing information and best practices to the national level; and even the loose national framework has yet to take shape.
Phase One of the campaign, from last August to this July (funded with $609,883 from RWJ and approximately $440,000 from NIAAA) has involved organizing people and agencies, and developing meetings, videos, websites, books, brochures, public service announcements and task forces.
If a Phase Two jells, those efforts will continue for years. Nelba Chavez, administrator of the service delivery-oriented Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) - a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that does not include NIAAA - announced at the March meeting that it would commit $1 million to the campaign. That money would allow the governors' spouses to coordinate funding from private and government sources, including SAMHSA. The agency could not say whether this would be in the form of a grant to the Governors' Spouses Leadership Committee or some other means. "Distribution of the $1 million is under review," said SAMHSA spokesman James Michie.
At the close of the Washington meeting, participants signed the "Pledge to Our Youth," which listed eight avenues to reduce the number of nine- to- 15-year-old drinkers:
- make the prevention of early alcohol use a national priority;
- educate the public about the dangers of early alcohol use;
- support parents in their efforts to prevent underage drinking;
- encourage research to combat underage drinking on the local, state and national level;
- involve the communities in prevention.
- foster coorperation between state and municipal agencies, parents, teachers and youth;
- engage young people in alcohol prevention for youth; and
- encourage the media to portray the negative side to underage drinking and promote non-use.
The four co-chairs of the Governors' Spouses Leadership Committee are Vicky Cayetano of Hawaii, Hope Taft of Ohio, Sharon Kitzhaber of Oregon and Michele Ridge of Pennsylvania. For campaign and educational materials, contact Roberta Hochberg, project director at CDM Group, the contractor for the Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free, at (301) 654-6740 or email@example.com.
- Amy Bracken