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Young. Eager. And Drunk.

A 12-year-old binger? Believe it. Alcohol abuse starts early.

Reaching Younger Kids continued...

"A Very Scary Ride," a story about two young boys picked up after school by an inebriated uncle, sets up one lesson that Bliss took into a Montana 2nd-grade classroom. "He smelled funny and was yelling, not nice like usual," the story recounts.

"When we taught this lesson," says Bliss, "the students were so inventive about what they could do, from going back into the school for a 'forgotten' book in order to tell a trusted adult, to saying they felt sick and couldn't get in the car," says Bliss. The segment is part of an eight-lesson series for each grade taught by trained volunteers, teachers, and very carefully selected high school students. The program is scheduled to be launched in fall 2000.

Charting the Damage

When Huggins visits high school classes, she takes an attention-getting computer program that graphs blood alcohol rate depending on gender, weight, and food intake. It offers students a quick look at the physiological effects of having two drinks an hour, for example. (In this context, a drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine, or 1 ounce of hard liquor.) Another tool that shows the effects of alcohol is a pair of special glasses that simulate alcohol-impairment. A boy and a girl try to walk a straight line with and without the goggles. "Usually they stop, because they realize they can't do it," says Huggins. "We always point out that if they'd been drinking, they'd probably have lost that judgment too," says Huggins. "Maybe they'd be driving."

Each time Huggins talks to a group of high schoolers, she says, almost invariably, at least one student will come up to her afterwards to say he is worried about a friend or a family member who drinks too much. Huggins says that recognizing the problem and finding help are two critical steps toward improvement. Fortunately, she says, there are counselors, parent-teen sessions, a hot line, and a teen-to-teen line available locally, as is true in many other states, and advice abounds on the Internet.

If teens are drinking, says Huggins, it's usually binge drinking. "We find that at a party a girl will typically have seven or eight drinks per hour, and boys even more.

"In one of our recent teen-parent sessions, a 15-year-old girl told us how much she drank, and her dad, sitting beside her, was in shock. He knew she was drinking, because that's why they were there, but he hadn't realized how much, or how close she had come to risking death from having such a high level of alcohol in her blood. 'Why are you doing that to yourself?' was written all over his face."

"Teens do not realize how much they're drinking, how much it affects their systems," says Huggins. All the more reason to get the word out as soon as possible. "We've got to reach the younger students."

Jeanie Puleston Fleming has written for The New York Times, Sunset, and WebMD.

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