Combating Alcohol Use and Abuse:
A Shared Responsibility

 

by Fernando A. Guerra, MD, MPH, FAAP

Every five days, someone in this community dies due to the negligent and reckless behavior of those who drink and drive. Yet, that horrifying statistic does not begin to scratch the surface of the real costs of alcohol use and abuse here in San Antonio and Bexar County.

Dangers of drinking in excess extend beyond fatalities and are a major public health concern. Along with the perils of death, injury, and family violence, alcohol abuse is a contributor to a variety of health consequences such as alcohol dependency, chronic liver disease, obesity, diabetes, sexually transmitted diseases, fetal alcohol syndrome, and low-birth weight babies as well as mental disorders like depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.

For underage drinkers, the results are equally lamentable. Consequently, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a first-ever Call to Action to Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking. According to the report by Surgeon General Kenneth Moritsugu, MD, MPH, nearly 10.8 million youths, ages 12 to 20, are underage drinkers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites this group as consuming almost 20 percent of the alcohol purchased in the United States. Other research shows alcohol as the most commonly used drug among America’s youth. If you would like further information on the abuse of alcohol visit alcoholmd.com.

The repercussions of underage drinking are felt locally in fatality crashes and on the socioeconomic front. Teens who drink often engage in other risk-taking behaviors such as unprotected sex, violence, suicide, and abuse of other substances, including tobacco and drugs. Obesity is also a danger with many teens, especially girls, consuming the genre of drinks known as alcopops. These “gateway” drinks are loaded with sugar and flavoring to mimic soda and mask the taste of alcohol. Hence, the high-caloric drinks can lead to alcoholism and obesity. Alcoholic energy drinks are just as problematic and include the dangerous effects of simultaneously introducing both a stimulant and a depressant into the bloodstream.

Moreover, there is the issue of underage binge drinking. In the 2007 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 26 percent of students at a local high school reported participation in binge drinking (consuming five or more drinks within a two-hour period). The potential damage and long-term impact on brain development from this type of activity is enormous and carries too great a consequence to be ignored by educators, administrators, and parents, as well as the business community.

Our entire community, including medical professionals, must address a preventable crisis that we neither desire nor can afford. Physicians, nurses, and other medical professionals should have candid conversations with patients about the health dangers of alcohol use and abuse. Patients who drink in excess or are members of families where heavy drinking is an acceptable norm should be warned of the longterm health consequences. They include the aforementioned health risks along with high blood pressure, strokes, heart disease, osteoporosis, and certain cancers. Neophyte drinkers or those with smaller physical frames must be warned of the adverse effects of alcohol even when consumed in low quantities.

We all have a stake in this public health and safety concern. As motorists, taxpayers, families, neighbors, business owners, medical professionals, and educators, we must actively seek and support solutions.

Parents and other adults also must model responsible behavior and have the courage to abstain from social drinking at times to illustrate that fun should not be equated with drinking. If we fail to take action, we take responsibility for the next DWI death and the other ill effects of alcohol use and abuse.

Dr. Fernando A. Guerra is Director of Health for the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District and a practicing pediatrician. He also serves as a Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and an Adjunct Professor in Public Health at the Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, Brooks Air Force Base, and Adjunct Professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health.