Are the kids alright? Part I

Part one of a three-part series examining teen alcohol use in Florence.

Drinking was her claim to fame.

Nicole, as she prefers to be called, was terrified of drugs. It was just after the Nancy Reagan era and her “just say no” campaign. Pee Wee Herman held up a vial of crack cocaine on Saturday morning television commercials, saying, “Doing crack isn’t just wrong, you could be dead wrong.”

The Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program was in full swing when Nicole was in high school. It was in 80 percent of grade schools, but the results were mixed. A 2004 National Institute of Health meta-analysis concluded, “Our study supports previous findings indicating that D.A.R.E. is ineffective.”

Nicole was in the D.A.R.E. program. It certainly made illegal drugs unappealing, not to mention she had personal experience to turn her off ; her father manufactured illicit drugs.

But alcohol?

“We had D.A.R.E. when I was in high school, but it focused on drugs,” Nicole said. “Because alcohol is legal. It was always ‘when you drink,’ not ‘if,’ but when’you drink, just don’t get into a car with someone else that is drinking. It was normal.”
So, when Nicole was 15, she started drinking. “I had a really good friend who was going into a sorority. We went to a party and that’s what everybody was doing.” A party like that is usually uncharted waters for a 15-year-old, and Nicole didn’t want to get busted and kicked out of the party.

“I didn’t want them to see that I wasn’t drinking,” she said. “I never had peer pressure, it just seemed to be the social norm. And I didn’t have somebody saying ‘you shouldn’t drink.’”

And so she drank that night, and the next. “I always drank more than anyone else, and faster than everyone else,” Nicole said. “And I used to pride myself with the fact that I could drink guys under the table. Here I am, five foot nothing, who could out-drink a freshman in college. It wasn’t as cool as I thought it was, but that was my claim to fame.

“I was never going to be the head cheerleader,” she continued. “I was never going to be involved in sports. I never had parents that were actively involved with my school. Just barely making it was all I could look for.”
Nicole, like her mother, father, eventual husband and, for a brief time she feared, her sister, all became alcoholics.

She lives in Florence now with her family and her son. She fears that he’ll begin drinking one day as well. He’s in elementary school right now, showing no interest in alcohol.

But that’s today.

As Oregon’s sudden boon in the brewery business has put drinking front and center as a way of economic recovery, what will her son’s attitudes be when he grows older?

To prevent her son from following in her footsteps, Nicole, like many others in the community, are taking part in the Healthy Directions initiative — an area prevention and health promotion coalition that was formed through Lane County Public Health.

The goal of Healthy Directions is to bring about awareness of, and attempt to lower, teen alcohol use in the Siuslaw region.

Lane County Community Health Analyst Emily Buff Bear, who is spearheading the initiative, explained.

“We have a grant that allowed us to look for communities in Lane County that needed assistance working with under-age drinking prevention, in particular communities that had higher rates of alcohol use — especially by youth. We decided to work in Florence because there was interest and the will.”

That will came from a variety of factors, one of them being an April 2017 Florence case that left a 14-year old student with a potentially fatal blood alcohol content of .354 — more than four times the Oregon legal limit of .08 for adults.

In that incident, the teen had met up with another friend who brought two fifths of Black Velvet whisky to drink. The teen consumed one fifth over a short period of time, which eventually led him to pass out. A passerby saw him unresponsive and foaming at the mouth. The teen survived, but the concerns remained.

While incidents like that have raised public awareness, it’s the unreported and more subtle normalization of alcohol and teens that brought Healthy Directions to Florence.

A 2015 study conducted by the Center for Disease Control found that 33 percent of youth drank alcohol.

According to Buff Bear, Siuslaw area statistics are higher.

While she was unable to provide actual numbers due to privacy concerns, she stated “I can tell you that Siuslaw School District has a higher rate than the county. Both the county and the school district have a higher rate than the state average.”
While the recent legalization of marijuana and the national attention on opioid addiction has caused many organizations to focus solely on those issues, Buff Bear points out that those issues are relatively minor when compared to liquor.

“Alcohol is the drug of choice for any youth in Oregon,” she said. “That’s statewide. Not so much tobacco, or even marijuana and prescription drugs. When it comes to age of initiation and use of drugs it’s usually alcohol that they start with.”

Florence Police Commander John Pitcher agreed, saying, “Other drugs play a factor in our day-to-day lives as police officers, but alcohol is by far the number one issue we are dealing with in our community.”

While underage drinking is an issue that needs to be addressed, Buff Bear points out that it’s not endemic to all teens in Florence. And while it’s easy to focus on the 33 percent statistic, 66 percent of youth aren’t drinking — a number that’s dangerously overlooked.

If you ask youth how much they’re personally drinking, you get the 33 percentage,” she explained. “If you ask them how much they think others are drinking, they say 80 percent.” Youth who don’t drink think everyone else their age is.

From that perspective, it’s not the oft cited “peer pressure” that gets youth to drink, but a resignation to its perceived normalcy.

“That’s a dangerous misconception,” Buff Bear said. “If adults and youth think that all the kids are using these substances anyway, it does make our youth more likely to use.”

“If we recognize the 66 percent who are just going about their lives without using drugs or alcohol, they’re less likely to drink,” she continued.
As to why that 33 percent does drink, Buff Bear believes it has to do with the prevalent normalization of alcohol.

“I’d say our culture has really glorified it,” she said. “It feels like everybody is drinking.”

In Oregon, normalization is a driving force in economic health.

A 2014 meeting of the Commissioners of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission spoke with alcohol industry experts regarding the financial impact of alcohol production in the state.

The Oregon Wine Board reported that the wine economy has a $2.7 billion statewide impact. The Oregon Brewers Guild estimated they have a $1.6 billion impact.

Large cities like Portland and Eugene are not the main areas to reap the benefits of alcohol production, either. Rural employment was noted as having the most significant impact from craft beer, wine, spirits and cider. They reported that 44 out of 74 Oregon breweries are in rural areas.

Producing alcohol represents more than 2 percent of employment along the North coast.

Alcohol tourism is also a significant employer. From vineyards to brewery tastings, 94,000 Oregonians in hospitality and tourism directly benefit from alcohol production.

Florence is no exception.

City officials have made attempts to bring a major brewery to town in an effort to boost employment, but have thus far been unsuccessful.
However, the selling of alcohol is prevalent.

Florence has one of the highest density of alcohol distribution in Lane County. A recent census looked at the number of alcohol outlets — liquor stores, bars, convenience stores, etc. — and compared them to population size.

It found there is one alcohol outlet for every 100 people. That figure is four times the Lane County average. Only five other areas in the county have a higher density, which are located in downtown Eugene and Cottage Grove.

Of particular concern is how these outlets are dealing with teen alcohol use. In 2012, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) performed a minor sales check in Florence, surveying how many businesses checked IDs. Only 62 percent of businesses complied, “significantly below the 2011 statewide average of 76 percent,” the OLCC report said.

The businesses were Rite Aid, Griff’s Cleawox Market, Abhi’s One Stop Market, Twin Lakes Store, Florence Liquor Store, Abby’s Pizza, Buy 2 @ Florence, Chen’s Family Dish, Kozy Kitchen and Pizza Hut.

But that was in 2012 and these businesses may have changed their practices. Buff Bear praises Abby’s Pizza in particular for its enforcement of ID checks.

But no other OLCC studies have been released since 2012 to definitively prove which businesses have gotten better and those that have fallen to the wayside of the rules.

“The fact that there haven’t been any others just highlights for me how the OLCC does not appear to be funded for some of its most basic functions as a regulatory body,” Buff Bear said.

“We’re not disparaging retailers,” Buff Bear pointed out. “We think they’re very strong partners in preventing youth drinking.” But the advertisements these establishments have can create issues, she explained.

“How much money do alcohol and tobacco outlets spend on advertising? If a teen sees a lot of advertising and many adults drinking in bars, it normalizes a lot of that behavior for our youth. They like to think that they’re adults, and if they see things that they think is normal adult behavior, then they’re going to do that.”

But that doesn’t mean that adults should stop drinking altogether, Buff Bear points out; “We can partner with adults and make sure they’re using alcohol in moderation.”

But what are the responsibilities of adults and businesses then? Are they just as culpable in teen drinking, or even more so, than the teens themselves?

Note: This is part 1 of a 3 part series. Find additional installments in the Special Series Archive, located here.