This month, thousands of Oregon youngsters head back to the classroom, their schedules filled with homework, sports practices, club meetings and other activities.
Unfortunately, too many youth also are engaging in what many adults mistakenly consider a rite of passage: Drinking alcohol.
The statistics reveal the extent of what can rightly be called a public health crisis in our state. About 30 percent of eighth-graders and nearly half of 11th-graders consumed alcohol in the past month, according to the 2005 Oregon Healthy Teens Survey. And many kids aren't just having one drink; nearly one in three 11th-graders say they binged on alcohol in the past month - consuming five or more drinks in a row within a couple of hours.
There's another disturbing trend: Young girls in Oregon are drinking at higher rates than young boys, a phenomenon we have not seen before.
Years of medical research attest to the short- and long-term consequences of the dangerous combination of kids and alcohol. Adolescents who drink can cause long-term, irreversible damage to their young brains. And it can kill. Alcohol is involved in suicide, homicide and unintentional injuries, the leading causes of death among youth.
When you consider the powerful influences that kids are exposed to today, such as alcohol industry advertising, it's no wonder so many make the unhealthy decision to drink. Studies by the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown University, as well as other organizations and researchers, have found mounting evidence that youth exposure to alcohol ads has a significant impact on their decisions to drink.
There is empowering news, however. Although parents and caregivers can sometimes feel they have lost influence with their child, kids themselves say their parents' words and actions play an important role in whether they drink alcohol. Research bears this out.
What can parents do? Talk regularly with your kids about the dangers of underage drinking. Dispel the myth that most kids drink; the fact is, the opposite is true. Establish family rules for children's behavior, and stand your ground when it comes to consequences. Make sure responsible adult supervision is provided when your children visit other kids' homes. Provide a 'safe home' with respect to alcohol by storing it in a secure place. Get to know the parents of your children's friends. And restrict youth parties or gatherings in houses when adults are not there.
A recent survey by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University revealed a vast gap between what parents perceive is happening at youth parties, and what is actually going on. For example, 80 percent of parents surveyed said they did not think alcohol and marijuana were available at parties their teens attended, but 50 percent of teens said they went to parties where both substances were present.
There is a lot parents can do to help kids stay safe, healthy and alcohol free, and they're among the best investments in their future.
Judy Cushing, Lake Oswego, is president/CEO of Oregon Partnership, a statewide nonprofit that provides substance abuse prevention education and treatment referral.
For more information, visit www.faceitparents.com.