Shebreh Kalantari: Binge drinking: A public health issue, a community issue and an everyone issue

Source:  Santa Cruz Sentinel
Posted on October 15, 2006

It has been great to see the influx of community input around the topic of alcohol consumption by youth in Santa Cruz County following the No ID? No Problem press conference and summit Sept. 20 hosted by Project CURB Community United to Reduce Binging and SHOP at UCSC. Public dialogue is necessary to create awareness around the public-health issue of alcohol consumption among young people and its impacts on the community. As coordinator for Project CURB, I would like to clarify and address some of the points brought up in recent editorials and letters to the editor.

Project CURB is a joint project of the Together for Youth Collaborative a United Way of Santa Cruz County-led initiative and County of Santa Cruz Drug and Alcohol Prevention Programs. The goal of Project Curb is to address the high rates of binge drinking occurring among Santa Cruz County youth using an environmental prevention approach.

It is dangerous both to ignore the issue of youth binge drinking and to assume that it is not a major problem in our community. In reality, our youth are reporting consequences that not only impact them and their families, but our community. Nearly 30 percent of the youth surveyed by Project CURB reported having driven a car under the influence over 400 youth ages 16-20 throughout the county filled out surveys last spring. The number jumps to 60 percent when asked if they have ever ridden in a car with someone under the influence. Among the Project CURB youth respondents, 25 percent reported unplanned sex, almost 18 percent reported having unprotected six, and 141/2 percent reported being taken advantage of sexually.

The belief that violent incidents at parties are due to gang activities needs to be challenged. In our survey, 58 percent of youth respondents reported having gotten into an argument or fight and 40 percent reported being hurt or injured as a result of drinking. As indicated by Project CURB youth participants who have gone to such parties, these arguments and violent incidents are mostly among peers who come from similar neighborhoods and backgrounds. They are not a result of gang activities or ethnic differences.

True, these negative consequences are not only a "youth issue." Adults who binge drink also pose serious negative impacts to the community, including modeling drinking behavior for young people. In fact, our surveys showed that 92 percent of "non-drinkers" indicated that their parents felt it was "very wrong" or "wrong" for them to drink alcohol regularly while only 71 percent of "drinkers" thought their parents felt it would be "very wrong" or "wrong" to drink alcohol regularly.

These results indicate that adult attitudes and behaviors impact and influence youth behavior. Critics of projects such as ours often bring up issues around drinking in European countries-- that have lower drinking ages and a more "relaxed" attitude toward drinking in general presumably leads to lower youth alcohol consumption and alcoholism rates.

Recent research disputes this assumption. Research shows that European countries do have very high rates of alcoholism among the adult population, as well as higher rates of health problems related to alcohol such as cirrhosis of the liver and heart conditions.

In addition, Pacific Institute on Research and Evaluation PIRE compared the 2003 European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Others Drugs ESPAD with the 2003 United States Monitoring the Future Survey MTF. Data was collected from 15-16-year-old students in 35 European countries. The survey reports that "The United States is a low consumption country by European standards. With the exception of Turkey, at 20 percent, every European country in the ESPAD survey had higher prevalence rates. And, in most cases the rate of current drinking far exceeded those observed in the United States."

The report states, "If the early socialization to drinking that is assumed to be typical of Europe is such that it fosters responsible drinking, then we would expect to see much lower rates of binge drinking there than in the United States. Again, it turns out that in many cases the percentage of young people reporting drinking five or more drinks in a row is considerably higher in European countries than that for the United States." The full article may be viewed in the fall 2005 Prevention File article: 20_1pdf

In addition, several recent studies have shown that significant brain development happens up until the age of 21 and that teens who binge drink may do damage to their memory and learning abilities articles may be found at and

In fact, Project CURB and UCSC data has already indicated such consequences; 44 percent of Project CURB youth respondents reported memory loss as a result of drinking during the last year and 30 percent of UCSC students reported forgetting where they were and what they had done during the last school year as a result of drinking in the past quarter.

Young people in Santa Cruz County are aware of alcohol-related problems. Nearly one quarter of youth respondents stated that they thought they might have a drinking problem and 17 percent had tried unsuccessfully to stop using alcohol. As this data and recent studies show, there is a strong link between drinking at an early age and developing alcoholism as an adult Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, July 2006.

All of the information above speaks to the need for community-based prevention efforts.

The No ID? No Problem press conference and summit was held to inform the community of recently collected data around binge drinking behaviors and attitudes in Santa Cruz County; and to bring community members together to create dialogue and generate policy solutions around this public health issue.

The over 90 attendees at the press conference and summit, representing various sectors and geographic locations of the county, provided valuable input during break-out sessions about possible solutions to addressing youth binge drinking in Santa Cruz County. Community members present at the summit confirmed that community awareness and policy and procedural changes are needed to curb this local problem. Specific emphasis has been placed on the unincorporated ares of Aptos and San Lorenzo Valley as data points toward trends of higher rates of binge drinking in these geographic locations. Project CURB has already begun work with youth, community groups, law enforcement and city officials from both of these ares.

Contrary to some of the perceived notions that current alcohol prevention efforts are "declaring a war" on or punishing local youth, Project CURB works collaboratively with local youth and experts in the field to address this very serious public health issue. Project CURB and SHOP at UCSC are both using similar evidence-based strategies that propose policy and procedural changes.

Although there is much work to be done, this past year Project CURB and SHOP at UCSC have made great strides. One example is that Project CURB's Merchant Education program has resulted in an increase in trainings regarding procedures such as checking ID cards. These trainings have had a positive impact on the community. Only 7 percent of Project CURB youth respondents stated that they purchased alcohol from stores. In addition, rates of citations to merchants for selling to minors has significantly dropped from 40 percent four years ago to under 10 percent in 2006.

Some of the other Project CURB initiatives include launching a media campaign that challenges the myths and social norms around binge drinking; and working with Neighborhood Association groups and the community to create and implment social host policies and procedures. Examples of such policies/procedures include parents and adults publicly committing to adopting home policies to prevent alcohol access. For instance, one in for our Project CURB youth respondents reported getting alcohol from their homes without parental knowledge. Adults can address this issue by securing alcohol that is stored in their homes.

Project CURB and SHOP at UCSC intend to proceed with these efforts to work toward a safer Santa Cruz County. I urge you, as concerned community members, to continue this dialogue and get involved. It is only as a community that we may create a safer and healthier environment for all Santa Cruz County residents, youth and adults alike.

For more information on Project CURB and to view the full Project CURB Survey results available after Nov. 1, please visit

Shebreh Kalantari is the director of community building for the United Way of Santa Cruz County.

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