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Governors' Spouses, NIAAA Target Youth Drinking

Youth drinking is commonly considered to be a "rite of passage" to adulthood. It should more accurately be viewed as a public health problem, say the spouses of 28 state governors and more than 20 other concerned organizations that have joined forces as the Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free. The leadership campaign, a 3-year initiative, focuses on raising public awareness about drinking among children age 9 to 15 years.

"Alcohol is the number one drug of choice for young people and costs society more than all the illegal drugs combined," said NIAAA director Dr. Enoch Gordis, in remarks that opened the leadership's recent kickoff conference. "While the media have reported extensively on binge drinking among college students, most people are not aware that nearly 3 million teens aged 14 to 17 are regular drinkers with a serious alcohol problem.

"From NIAAA research, we know that 40 percent of children who begin drinking before the age of 13 will become alcoholics at some point in their lives," Gordis said.

Spearheaded by NIAAA and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free held its first national conference in Washington, D.C. Other federal funding sources include the NIH offices of research on women's health and research on minority health.

After signing the "Pledge to Our Youth," governors' spouses joined with three young people who attended the leadership conference. The spouses are (rear, from l) Martha Sundquist of Tennessee, Sue Ann Thompson of Wisconsin and Hope Taft of Ohio. The youngsters are (front, from l) Logan Evans, a Lakota Native American from South Dakota, Jeanne Nunnallee of Florida, and Tiffany Prue, also a Lakota Native American from S.D.

Leading scientists at the meeting presented current findings on the prevalence of alcohol use among children, environmental influences on alcohol consumption among children, the role of parents and schools in curtailing underage drinking, community and state prevention efforts, the relative success of alcohol policies in preventing youth access to alcohol, and the effects of the media and the Internet on youth drinking. One session, a roundtable discussion with adolescents aged 10-15, highlighted the adolescents' views on why kids drink and the best ways to intervene.

NIH acting director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein addressed a congressional reception held in conjunction with the conference. "As governors' spouses, you are in a pivotal position to energize the public, to work toward translating the public's concern about health and family issues into actions that will bring about what is absolutely critical — change," she said.

Many of the participating first ladies already have launched the initiative locally. Formal press kickoffs have been arranged by Vicky Cayetano (Hawaii), Hope Taft (Ohio), Sharon Kitzhaber (Oregon) and Michele Ridge (Pennsylvania). Others have developed public service announcements and campaign-related web sites, and a third group has begun a national speaking tour.

The leadership initiative also was highlighted during the summer at meetings of the western governors and the National Governors Association. A series of regional meetings is planned for the fall, each of which will include presentations by nationally recognized scientists.

Phase two of the initiative will involve the governors' spouses in education efforts to raise public awareness and work toward change.

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