Wisconsin traditions include Friday night fish, community corn roasts and festivals centered around strawberries and sausage.
Yet, there are other parts of the state’s culture that some question and believe need to be addressed.
These are traditions centered on the excessive drinking of alcohol.
This part of Wisconsin’s culture results in a huge cost to the health-care system.
And, it is especially dangerous for young people under age 21.
Alcohol use or abuse can impact daily functions, longevity and development over a lifetime, with adolescence particularly a fragile period in neurodevelopment.
While there is still a great deal of research to be learned, this is what is known:
• Each year in the United States, excessive alcohol consumption contributes to more than 4,600 deaths among underage youth.
• Underage drinking is strongly associated with many health and social problems among youth including alcohol-impaired driving, physical fighting, poor school performance, sexual activity and smoking.
• Most underage youth who drink do so to the point of intoxication – that is they binge drink, which is defined as having five or more drinks in a row, typically on multiple occasions.
Some people justify underage drinking, saying it is something that they did, and they survived.
However the questions to ask are:
• Did everyone survive?
• How were lives changed or influenced by alcohol?
• What are the long-term effects of alcohol that were not known in the past?
• Has teenage drinking changed, and do o young people have more access to cars, which makes drinking and driving more dangerous?
• Should teenage drinking as a rite of passage continue to be encouraged or allowed to happen?
It is the No. 1 health risk for youth, and it is a preventable health risk.
Continued research and advanced technology have resulted in information about the physical effects of excessive drinking of alcohol.
Researchers studying the effects of alcohol use on the brain are aided by technology that provides insight into how alcohol affects the brain’s structure and function.
Their research shows that long-term heavy drinking may lead to the shrinking of the brain and deficiencies in the fibers (white matter) that carry information between brain cells (gray matter).
Effects of underage drinking
Youth who drink alcohol are more likely to experience:
• School problems, such as higher absence and poor or failing grades.
• Social problems, such as fighting and lack of participation in youth activities.
• Legal problems, such as arrest for driving or physically hurting someone while drunk.
• Physical problems, such as hangovers or illnesses.
• Unwanted, unplanned and unprotected sexual activity.
• Disruption of normal growth and sexual development.
• Physical and sexual assault.
• Higher risk for suicide and homicide.
• Alcohol-related car crashes and other unintentional injuries, such as burns, falls and drowning.
• Memory problems.
• Abuse of other drugs.
• Changes in brain development that may have life-long effects.
• Death from alcohol poisoning.
About 20 percent of the alcohol in a drink can be absorbed by the stomach – the rest of the alcohol travels directly to the rest of our body through the bloodstream within a short amount of time, including straight to the brain.
The immediate health risk of too much alcohol is that the brain’s reaction time slows which can hinder responses in driving and safety.
Large quantities of alcohol, especially when consumed quickly and on an empty stomach, can produce a blackout or an interval of time for which the intoxicated person cannot recall key details of events or even entire events.
Reducing underage drinking
Reducing underage drinking will require community-based efforts to monitor the activities of youth and decrease youth access to alcohol. Recent publications by the Surgeon General and the Institute of Medicine outlined many prevention strategies that will require actions on the national, state and local levels, such as enforcement of minimum legal drinking age laws, national media campaigns targeting
youth and adults, increasing alcohol excise taxes, reducing youth exposure to alcohol advertising and development of comprehensive community-based programs.
These efforts will require continued research and evaluation to determine their success and to improve their effectiveness.
In Waupaca County, information about the dangers of underage drinking and the legal consequences of hosting underage drinking parties are part of the “Parents Who Host Lose the Most” effort.
A year ago in Clintonville, high school students, parents, police officers, paramedics and teachers worked with a producer to create “No Second Chances,” a video that shows the potential horrors of drinking and driving.
Go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=c26X-QwxvB0 to see the trailer they produced.
Connie Abert works in community youth development in the Waupaca County UW-Extension Office.