The Douglas County Drug Prevention Coalition is launching a new campaign targeting a reduction in underage drinking.
Small Talks is designed to encourage parents, loved ones and other caring adults to have small, casual conversations with kids starting around the age of 8 about alcohol use.
“This doesn’t have to be the long, sit down, ‘We’re going to have the alcohol talk,’” said Jane Larson, co-chair of the Douglas County Drug Prevention Coalition.
The goal of the campaign is to encourage parents to talk to their children when the opportunity presents itself to help influence their kids’ choices around alcohol use, she said.
Nationally, alcohol use among high school has been on the decline for more than a decade, according to National Youth Risk Behavior Survey results. Since 2007, the decline has been steady, with just 29.2% high school students reporting alcohol use in the 30 days prior to the survey in 2019. Alcohol use among Wisconsin high school students was higher than the national average at 29.8%.
“Alcohol is always prevalent no matter what other drug is coming up,” said Dave Longsdorf, deputy director of the Douglas County Department of Health and Human Services. The agency is partnering with the coalition on the campaign.
Longsdorf, who serves as the county’s alcohol and other drug abuse coordinator, estimated that 60% to 70% of the addiction issues that come across his desk are related to alcohol.
“Alcohol is a long-standing issue in this county with students drinking,” Larson said. “Over the years, it has come down some, but we still tend to run higher than state averages.”
She said while drinking among youth has come down some, the onset of alcohol use is happening at the ages of 12 and 13.
The number of high school students that reported having their first drink before the age of 13 has also been steadily declining for two decades nationwide, according to Youth Behavior Risk Survey results. Nationally, only 15% of high school students reported having their first drink before age 13 in 2019, down from a peak of 32.9% in 1993.
However, in Wisconsin, 16.5% of high school students reported having their first drink before age 13.
“So, we know that the younger a person is when they begin to drink, the greater the likelihood is they’ll have a problem later in life with alcohol use,” Larson said. “If we can help them abstain and push back that age of first use to a later date, when they’re older — like 18, 19, 21 — their chances of having a problem with addiction to alcohol is greatly decreased.”
Alcohol use is a part of the culture, and there is nothing wrong with responsible alcohol use, she said.
“Prevention really is about starting early so how do you focus that on youth, and the best way to focus on youth is to work with parents to help their kids,” Larson said.
To get the word out about the campaign, the Douglas County Drug Abuse Coalition has put out billboards and is offering yard signs and window clings to anyone who wants to spread the word. To get a sign or window cling, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For information on the Small Talks campaign, visit www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/small-talks/index.htm.
“Many people use alcohol very responsibly and it becomes a piece of socializing, and that’s just fine,” Longsdorf said. “But some people, when they don’t know where their limits lie, when they don’t know what unhealthy use is, they can find themselves in real trouble. And I think it’s good to have those conversations with kids.”