Asking a 5-year-old child to get their dad a beer or allowing a teenager to sip wine at a wedding could lead to a lifetime of addiction.
“If Bill is my father, he is drinking, and at a very early age he is telling me to go get a beer, well now at 4 or 5 years old and I am bringing Bill his beer, I may take that drink later because I am exposed to it at a very early age,” said Brian Reese, a treatment supervisor at Fayette County Drug and Alcohol Commission (FCDAC). “Parents don’t always understand how that little bit of wine turns into a lot more.”
Erica Usher, a prevention supervisor for the commission, said alcohol is considered a drug. They are not different. Saying that one leads to another is not accurate when they are one in the same. She said addiction to one substance may lead to addiction to another.
“The reality is that there is a genetic link to addiction, but there is also how children learn what they live,” she said. “So, if this is what I grow up with and this is normal to me, even if it is not something that I like, I tend to take that to my own new family. That’s not only true with just addiction, but that’s true with domestic violence, teenage pregnancy and other societal ills. This is what was normal with me, so that’s what I take with me when I create my own family.”
Reese said a family environment that makes alcohol acceptable at a young age increases the risks that teenagers and later as adults will have problems with drugs.
“When you are looking at children in the environment about how they are growing up, whether they have preconceived addiction tendencies because of having that gene or if it is just more of that social environment, you now increase the risk by tenfold,” he said. “They are going to grow up and become worse.”
Bill Miller, driving under the influence supervisor for the commission, said alcohol is legal and accepted, so it is not seen as taboo to consume it.
“Alcohol is seen as socially acceptable -- womb to the tomb,” he said. “We celebrate births to deaths and everything in between: holidays, graduations or maybe when you are finished cutting the grass -- you celebrate. Youngsters would see it as acceptable behavior.”
Reese said the primary drug of choice among teens is tobacco, followed by alcohol and then marijuana. He said alcohol use may make young people more amenable to trying new things. He said an addictive personality, as brought out initially by consuming alcohol, feeds into other risky behavior.
A University of Florida study shows that alcohol — not marijuana — is the gateway drug that leads teens down the path toward more serious substances. According to the study, alcohol is the most commonly used substance, with 72.2 percent of students reporting alcohol consumption at some point in their lifetime. Comparatively, 45 percent of students reported using tobacco, and 43.3 percent cited marijuana use, according to the study.
The study reported that substance use typically begins with the most socially acceptable drugs, such as alcohol and cigarettes, then proceeds to marijuana use and finally to other illegal, harder drugs. The study showed that students who used alcohol exhibited a significantly greater likelihood — up to 16 times — of licit and illicit substance use.
Change is never easy, but it begins at home with the man in the mirror.
“Prevention does work,” Reese said. “Talking to a 5-year-old does work; changing the parent’s mind so that they know that it’s not OK to have their child get a beer. It’s not OK to give them wine or champagne. Have open and honest discussions about what’s going to be happening. That it is not OK. Talk about the reality of it, instead of pushing it under the rug and saying that it is fine. It needs to be honest.”
Jennifer Warrick, a case management supervisor for the commission, said she talks about prevention and more with her young son.
“All the time, I’m talking to my 5-year-old about drugs and peer pressure,” she said. “My mom asks me, ‘What are you doing?’ I say, he’s not too young to hear this. You put it on his developmental level and put it in terms that he understands. And through the years you add to it as he progresses in his age. And that’s the best way to work and deal with it through children. We need to be there and teach them every step of the way and not just think that someone else will do it. That other person might not be the best person to do it. They might be there with a beer in their hand saying, 'One isn’t going to hurt you.'”
Usher said a culture is not going to change unless it wants to change.
“We have family members come in here say ‘I just want my son. I want to see my old son again. I don’t want him be addicted. If he loved me, he would stop drinking; he would stop using,’" she said. “Until they are ready to change, you are not going to change them. And that is the same mentality. You are not going to change our culture's views if they are not willing to listen and willing to accept that change. But we can change ourselves, our opinions, and those around us that we have influence over so as to educate them as well as ourselves. And that’s how we change the perception of use in our area.”