Drug and alcohol use among Vashon teens: Let science be our guide

As a public health professional, a Vashon resident and a volunteer with the Vashon Healthy Communities Network, I feel a need to weigh in on the discussion surrounding youth alcohol and drug use on Vashon.  

While I appreciate the views and varying perspectives of my fellow residents, I am concerned that the issue is only being framed through a parenting or values-based lens. I ask that we consider the issue objectively and add a public health perspective.

When looking at health concerns, we should rely on data to inform and guide us in developing a response to them. We are fortunate to have both national and local research data on the topic of underage drinking and drug use. The data are clear to our grantors and the many individuals who have spent countless hours combing though it: We have a problem. 

In the 2010 Healthy Youth Survey administered to eighth, 10th and 12th graders, the following were found:

• Current alcohol and marijuana use on Vashon is equivalent to or greater than the state and national average. Fewer than one in five seniors use marijuana nationally. However, nearly 40 percent of Vashon 12th graders currently use it.

• “Onset,” or the average age in which our youth start drinking alcohol, is 13. Research shows that youth who drink before age 15 are four times more likely to develop alcoholism than those who initiate after that time. 

• The rate of Vashon 12th graders who feel that their parents think it is wrong to smoke marijuana (41 percent) is significantly lower than the state average (70 percent). This confirms additional survey results that show the majority of Vashon adults feel that our community is somewhat or very tolerant of youth alcohol and marijuana use.

• Vashon youth do not expect consequences for substance use. For instance, 24 percent of eighth graders feel that they would be caught for alcohol-related incidents by the police, compared with a 46 percent state average. Research shows that fear of getting caught is a deterrent to alcohol use.

While one can argue that additional local research on this topic would be beneficial, we have no time to waste and must act on available research. Current studies overwhelmingly show that limiting youth access to alcohol and drugs is an effective strategy in decreasing their use.  

I’ve heard the argument that allowing a child a small amount of alcohol won’t hurt him or her. However, would those same parents support their child in trying a “hard” drug such as meth? They both are potentially addictive substances, have toxic properties and can lead to serious, acute and chronic health conditions. To me, the only theoretical difference between the two is that alcohol is socially acceptable. Promoting it to children supports the notion that we condone its use. We have an obligation to consider how our personal choices and beliefs impact all youth, not only our own. Even if one child of a permissive parent does not develop a problem as a result of use, this child can influence other children — so, in essence, one parent’s permissive attitude can put other children one step closer to being one of the statistics.

The Vashon Healthy Community Network is taking a comprehensive, multi-sectoral approach to address the issue. The network uses national evidence-based models and best practices that can be tailored locally to address the specific needs of our community. School staff, social service workers, youth, medical professionals, parents and others are working collaboratively to identify the social and environmental factors that contribute to the problem and develop solutions to address them. This involves educating the community about the risks of these behaviors and limiting access of drugs and alcohol through policy, systems and environmental changes. The result of these efforts is changes in social norms so that drug and alcohol use become the exception, rather than the norm.

In order for us to solve the problem, it will require us to think and act in different ways. Unfortunately, changes in social norms are difficult as it takes time, resources, effective strategy delivery, committed individuals and changes in attitudes within the general population. Given that all of us want healthy kids and a healthy community, it behooves us to educate ourselves on the issue and check our assumptions and beliefs. In order for us to make progress, we all need to be part of the solution.


— Kirsten Frandsen oversees the Physical Activity, Nutrition and Tobacco Prevention programs at the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, is a Vashon resident, a mother of two and a volunteer with the Vashon Healthy Community Network.

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