by Nancy Koziol, owner of couch + cork and ACT’s Business Sector Leader
Vermont is known for so many things: its wild landscape ripe for outdoor recreation, lack of billboards and, unfortunately, higher rates of alcohol consumption–across all age groups–compared to national data (Vermont Department of Health). Why is that? Why does it matter? And what can we do as a community to help? Let’s dive in!
Numbers Don’t Lie
One of the most important things to understand is that it’s proven that people who begin drinking before the age of 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who begin drinking at the age of 21 (VDH).
Why Do These Stats Matter?
While it’s great that most parents don’t serve youth alcohol and 84% don’t think parents and other adults should supply alcohol (ACT Community Survey), there’s clearly a disconnect when our kids are reporting drinking.
The messages kids get around alcohol are mixed. They’re told not to drink and that alcohol is bad. But walk into any liquor store or even just a corner store and you’ll see packaged alcohol that looks like freeze pops or soda. These examples are extreme but they are part of the problem. It’s also more pervasive than this.
The National Library of Medicine found that “youth are overexposed to alcohol advertising. This contributes to youth having positive expectations of drinking, initiating drinking, and drinking more in quantity and frequency.” Boston University’s Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth has multiple publications illustrating that the more young people are exposed to alcohol advertising the more likely they are to begin drinking or, if they are already drinking, to drink more.
Assessing and Addressing Norms
While it can be easy to point the finger at the industry, it’s time to look inward. Advertising is one culprit, but I think a larger issue is our own normalizing of alcohol as something “required” in adulthood, even a personality trait.
From Thirsty Thursday to “wine moms” to events that highlight alcohol (even events that have nothing to do with alcohol), kids regularly see adults enjoying alcohol and communities supporting consumption.
Maybe I should have mentioned this sooner, but I didn’t want to color the stats. I am someone who has worked in the wine industry for quite some time, even owning a local business in “the intoxicant space” as I have taken to calling it. If we were to distill my job down it would be that I drink with people for a living. And yes, I intended the pun. I see alcohol as a source of income and enjoyment but I also recognize the tremendous responsibility to stop normalizing it. That’s why kids aren’t allowed at our events and we have a zero-tolerance policy for employees who are around underage drinking.
Many of the surveyed adults in our community reacted positively to the “European approach,” the idea that you can teach kids responsible drinking behaviors at home. That’s upsetting.
But then I remembered my own first experience with alcohol and it’s along exactly those lines. I was visiting my big sister and she handed me wine coolers and beers during her roommate’s birthday party. I was 17 and she was in medical school. So, not only was I being given alcohol by a trusted adult, I was also drinking, for the first time, with people at least 8 years my senior.
Suddenly, alcohol wasn’t this big bad thing. It was kind of fun, my sister was less uptight, and her friends seemed to enjoy hanging out with her 17-year-old sister (they usually groaned about my annual visit). This night could have gone far more wrong than it did. My only complaints were the pimply dental student who wouldn’t leave me alone and the massive headache the next day.
The problem, of course, is that this didn’t teach me about responsible consumption and after this summer, I was one of the kids bringing alcohol to parties. Staving off consumption among youth until they are old enough to make healthier decisions is the best norm around consumption.
Take Stock and Have the Conversation
Think about the course of your day. How many advertisements, both official and the more nebulous endorsements of alcohol, do you see? From commercials and print ads to songs and memes, alcohol is ubiquitous with day-to-day life.
It shouldn’t be.
I encourage everyone, in every role, to think about what message we’re sending to kids every time we host an event at which there’s alcohol. Every party where we offer those not drinking a soda or glass of water. Every gathering, public and private, where kids are walking around drunk adults is not simply a recipe for disaster but also a normalization of drinking and intoxication.
I’m not encouraging everyone to be sober. I won’t stop enjoying an evening drink or loving my job. What I will do is continue to actively engage in the conversation about what messages we’re sending when we mix kids and alcohol, when we don’t ask for certain products to be removed from kids’ sightlines and when we don’t normalize a lack of drinking as much as we do a drink in hand.
- Children who learn about the risks of substance use and about their parents’/caregivers’ expectations around substance use are significantly less likely to start using alcohol and drugs. ParentUp Vermont offers resources and tips to help you provide supportive and effective guidance to your child around topics like substance use and mental wellness.
- Watch: Under Construction: Alcohol and the Teenage Brain
- Talking to Kids About Alcohol and Other Drugs: 5 Conversation Goals
- Parenting to Prevent Childhood Alcohol Use
- Parents Teaching Teens “Responsible Drinking” is a Myth: Study
- VT Helplink is a statewide, public resource for finding substance use treatment and recovery services in Vermont. Helplink services are free and confidential.
Nancy Koziol is an internationally-certified wine expert/author/journalist and owner of couch + cork, an all-woman business providing in-home, venue-based, virtual and corporate wine education events. She started her career as a middle-school educator and believes in empowering students of all ages by giving them age-appropriate information and the language they need to tackle tough topics. As a professional who works with alcohol she believes it is her responsibility to engage with her community to foster safe, healthy, and legal relationships with alcohol.