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By Rebecca Smith
Coalition Coordinator for the Northeast Texas Coalition Against Substance Abuse

The other day, I went to the dentist for my routine cleaning, and hygienist began asking me about what I do. (Side note: Why do they do that? They realize you can’t talk with their hands in your mouth, right?) I explained to her that a big part of what I do is educate parents about why providing alcohol to their kids is a bad idea.

She was surprised that some parents provide alcohol to their kids. I was surprised that she was surprised.

It’s rare that I meet someone who doesn’t complain about kids drinking these days when the topic comes up. The typical adult response is that they throw their hands in the air or shrug, resigned to the old “kids will be kids” stereotype. When I talk to students, many of them believe that most of their peers drink as well.

You might think my dental hygienist lives in a bubble. But it turns out she may have a better idea of what’s normal than most of the adults I meet.

According to the latest Texas School Survey from Texas A&M University, only 29% of 7th-12th graders in East Texas said they drank alcohol in the last 30 days, which is the barometer researchers use to measure “current use.” And 65% say their parents “strongly disapprove of kids their age drinking.”

Our job at Next Step is to improve those numbers, so sometimes it’s hard to remember that the majority of teens aren’t drinking. But it’s important to celebrate that and make sure the community knows, because it gives us hope.

Working to ensure that fewer kids drink isn’t a lost cause, because most of them aren’t drinking already. And when we look at the success of how communities reduced cigarette use when it was so popular only a few decades ago, we have a road-map to follow.

We talk to parents a lot about making sure they give their kids a “strong disapproval message.” This is one of the most effective ways to prevent underage drinking, for two reasons. 1) Most teens who drink say they get their alcohol from friends and family. 2) Teens routinely say that parents are the No. 1 influence on their choice to drink, an even bigger influence than peers or celebrities. (For tips on how to talk to your kids about underage drinking, see this blog post.)

Underage drinking is a terrible public health problem. About 5,000 teens are killed every year in alcohol-related accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That’s more teens than are killed by all the other illicit drugs combined. In 2013, underage drinking cost Texans $5.5 billion. Teens who drink are more likely to engage in unprotected sex and are five times more likely to drop out of school, and they’re more likely to become alcohol dependent.

So yes, we are still concerned about the 29% of teens who are drinking. But bringing that number down isn’t impossible. Let’s all keep up the good work and tell everyone we know, adults and teens, that most kids aren’t drinking. Click here to learn more about how to get involved with the coalitions’ mission to end underage drinking in your community.