Preventing Alcohol Abuse Disorders

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Alcohol abuse and alcoholism results in tremendous costs, not only to individuals and their families but to society in general. It is estimated that the annual cost of alcohol abuse in the United States runs into hundreds of billions of dollars.

For the individual, excessive drinking can not only lead to alcoholism but can contribute to many other diseases and mental and behavioral disorders. It can lead to injuries, social harm, family disruption, unemployment, legal and financial problems.

Alcohol abuse leads to higher healthcare and related cost to the individual and to society. It results in lost productivity and lost years of lives, and many other related costs.

The most effective way to deal with the costs of alcohol use disorders to society is to prevent individuals from developing abusive drinking patterns. This can prove difficult because people start drinking for different reasons and under many different circumstances.

Naturally, many of the prevention efforts in place today are aimed at youth, because that is when most people first begin to drink in our culture, and if they do begin drinking early, they are much more likely to develop severe substance abuse problems later in life.

Defining High-Risk Drinking Patterns

One of the major prevention efforts, aimed at all of society, launched in recent years was the development by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) of specific guidelines for high-risk drinking.

Those guidelines call for no more than 14 standard drinks per week and no more than four per day for men; no more than seven per week and three per day for women.

NIAAA-sponsored research provided evidence that any alcohol consumption beyond those guidelines results in higher risk for alcohol-related and other problems.

In releasing those guidelines, the NIAAA hoped that just by knowing what level of drinking was risky would help many drinkers curtail their unhealthy drinking patterns.

Prevention Programs for Youth

Alcohol is still by far the drug of choice for adolescents in the United States. To curtail underage drinking requires a massive effort to try to change their family and/or community dynamics to prevent, or at least delay, their use of alcohol.

Current prevention efforts include those that monitor their activities and decrease their access to alcohol. Some of those efforts include enforcement of the legal drinking age laws, media campaigns targeting youth, increasing taxes on alcohol, reducing youth exposure to alcohol advertising and development of comprehensive community-based programs.

School-Based Interventions

Naturally, a key part of community-based prevention programs for youth includes school-based intervention programs. Research has found that the most effective of these programs have the following characteristics:

  • Correct the myth that "everybody" is drinking.
  • Teach youngsters ways to say no to alcohol.
  • Use interactive teaching techniques.
  • Involve parents and other segments of the community.
  • Revisit the topic over the years to reinforce messages.
  • Provide training and support for teachers and students.
  • Are culturally and developmentally on target.

Comprehensive Community Programs

Researchers have found that school-based interventions work best when there is a comprehensive community prevention effort in place.

Successful community programs include limiting alcohol sales to minors, increasing enforcement of underage drinking laws, and changing alcohol policies at community events, as well as increasing public awareness of problems associated with underage drinking.

Family-Focused Interventions for Youth

Many studies have found that children with strong family bonds and have parents actively involved in their lives are less likely to begin underage drinking.

Consequently, prevention programs that focus on parenting practices, parent-child communication and bonding, and effective family management have been shown to be most effective in preventing youth drinking.

College Drinking and Prevention

If a child today manages to make it through high school without drinking, there are greater challenges ahead if they go to college. College binge drinking continues to be a major concern for schools and parents.

Early research showed that the best college drinking prevention efforts included:

  • Brief motivation intervention approaches
  • Cognitive-behavioral interventions
  • Changing students' expectations about alcohol

Again, dispelling the myth that "everyone" is binge drinking, has been found effective in reducing college binge drinking. But, recent research has disputed the effectiveness of some of these prevention efforts, including brief intervention, especially if those interventions are delivered online.

Interventions in the Workplace

The workplace is an opportunity to reach problem drinkers with prevention programs they might not otherwise be exposed to in society. Employers can reduce lost productivity and rising medical expenses by initiating employee assistance programs.

One of most effective of these programs, according to the NIAAA, include lifestyle campaigns that encourage workers to ease stress, improve nutrition and exercise, and reduce risky behaviors such as drinking, smoking, and drug use.

Prevention in the Military

In the military, high-risk, lengthy and frequent deployments have been found to increase risks for developing heavy alcohol use. In fact, the rates of heavy drinking in military personnel ages 18 to 35 are 60% higher than the general population in that age group.

Military prevention efforts have included reducing the availability of alcohol around military bases. These efforts include: checking for I.D., making sure alcohol retailers do not serve minors, increasing drunk driving checkpoints, increasing community-based awareness, and promoting alternative activities that do not include alcohol.

Government Policy and Laws about Alcohol

To a certain extent, government action can prevent alcohol abuse on a larger scale than other interventions, because they affect a wider range of people. Policies and laws can affect alcohol's availability and the negative consequences of its use.

Some of the laws and policies that have had the greatest impact include lowering the legal limit for drunk driving to 0.08, immediate suspension of driver's licenses for higher BAC recordings, raising the minimum drinking age, and enacting zero-tolerance laws for underage drivers.

Effects of Alcohol Prices

Another area in which government can play a role in alcohol abuse prevention is in raising taxes on alcohol. Research has shown that increased prices for alcoholic beverages result in decreased consumption.

The increased alcohol taxes reduces drinking not only in the general population but in high-risk groups like heavy drinkers, adolescents, and young adults.

More Alcohol Prevention Policies

Local governments have more tools they can utilize to reduce the availability and negative consequences of alcohol use, that have been shown effective:

  • Enforcing the minimum drinking age
  • Monitoring of alcohol outlet densities
  • Limits on the hours and days of alcohol sales

Reducing the Costs to Society

Using these evidence-based approaches to prevention can reduce the high costs of alcohol use disorders to individuals and to society. Communities, schools, and workplaces have the ability to reach risky drinkers with these messages and strategies.

Meanwhile, the NIAAA is continuing to fund research into the development of new approaches to delivering effective preventive efforts.

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