Citizen Staff Writer
By BRAD BRANAN
The young members of Clean and Sober Theater cite a litany of statistics about youth alcohol abuse:
Students are more likely to drink in Pima County than in other places, putting them at greater risk for alcohol dependence as adults. … Alcohol plays a key role in accidents, homicide and suicide. …
“But it can’t hurt me,” C.A.S.T. members say in unison, rehearsing a play shown in schools and other places.
“We just want to experiment,” says Sara Meinecke, 17. “What’s the problem? Nothing bad can happen to me.”
The response is based on experience. The play was written by C.A.S.T. members recovering from drug and alcohol abuse.
In its effort to stop students from drinking, the Tucson/Pima County Commission on Addiction Treatment and Prevention is looking for new ways to reach young people. The commission released a report in August that found Pima County teens are far more likely to drink than teens across the country. Pima County eighth-graders were almost twice as likely to drink as their peers nationally.
The report calls for education, law enforcement and treatment in a plan that mirrors the state’s widely emulated and successful program for reducing teen smoking. Like the anti-smoking campaign, the effort would be funded with a new tax.
Commission members have praised the work of C.A.S.T. and Students Against Destructive Decisions, which addresses youth drinking at Tucson schools. In both groups, young people speak to peers, a key in the state’s youth anti-smoking campaign.
The proposed alcohol campaign would mimic the tobacco program by using advertising and education to counteract the positive messages young people sometimes receive about alcohol. The county Board of Supervisors is expected to select a task force in January to carry out the report’s recommendations.
Chuck Palm, an author of the report and a research analyst for the Pima Prevention Partnership, said he will recommend that education become the task force’s primary goal. Palm wants advertising and education built around a single theme, as the state did with the “Smelly Puking Habit” anti-smoking campaign. The Legislature or voters would have to approve a tax on alcohol to pay for the campaign.
Suzanne Elefante, state chairwoman of the Arizona Restaurant and Hospitality Association, opposes the tax proposal.
“Now that the tobacco money is going away, all these social-service groups are saying there’s going to be alcohol money and it’s going to be a pot of gold,” said Elefante, owner of Mama Louisa’s Italian Restaurant in Tucson.
She wants to make sure alcohol isn’t demonized as tobacco was while young people are taught about the risks of drinking.
Arizona used a new tobacco tax to pay for the “Smelly Puking Habit” campaign, best known for advertisements that ran from 1996 to 2000. Youth smoking rates in Arizona have been cut nearly in half since 1996.
The anti-smoking campaign succeeded because it came from young people, state officials said.
C.A.S.T. strives to provide an authentic message about alcohol abuse.
“We’ve gotten a strong response from kids,” said member Arnar Benediktsson, 18. “That’s because we’ve been through the situations we perform.”
Run by Compass Health Care, C.A.S.T. serves as a form of art therapy. During weekly therapy sessions, the nine C.A.S.T. members get in touch with emotions that led to their addictions, said artistic director Susan Arnold.
Then they use life examples in the play.
Benediktsson said he turned to drugs and alcohol to blunt the pain and anger he felt after the deaths of his father and aunt.
In the scene “Addiction is a Family Disease,” C.A.S.T. members play his mother and therapists. They pepper Benediktsson with questions as he withdraws and talks to the audience about his and his mother’s addictions.
He talks about drugs as an escape, then returns his attention to the characters on stage.
“Why is it about me? What about you, Mom?” he yells. “I want to kill something. I hate you! I hate myself.”
The scenes are intended to provoke questions, Arnold said. The group often receives more than 200 written questions for the discussion session after the play.
Residents asked for two C.A.S.T. performances Wednesday at Sahuarita Middle School because of a car accident last year that killed four high school students, said Cynthia Klein of Compass Health Care. Drugs were believed to be a cause.
Formed four years ago, C.A.S.T. once reached about 15,000 people a year, performing about 30 to 40 shows a year in the Tucson area, said Klein, community outreach coordinator at Compass. But funding cuts have meant fewer schools can pay the show’s $750 fee, reducing last year’s performances to 11. Compass, which will negotiate the performance fee, estimates it pays $140,000 a year for therapy for C.A.S.T. members, Arnold’s salary and a “nominal” stipend for members.
“Our goal is to reach 40,000 students each year,” Klein said.
SADD – formerly Students Against Drunk Driving – also seeks to bring kids a message from their peers. It has 38 chapters in Tucson.
SADD uses posters, school announcements and other means of raising awareness about the dangers of drinking.
Michael M. Murphy, who ran the “Smelly Puking Habit” anti-smoking campaign, said the Phoenix firm of Riester-Robb interviewed young people in focus groups as it created a campaign that used young actors.
Arizona was one of the first states to come up with a comprehensive tobacco-reduction program, he said. The “Smelly Puking Habit” campaign was emulated in 38 states.
Follow-up interviews showed that young people had a very high recall of the advertisements, said Jesse Nodora, evaluation administrator for the state Tobacco Education and Prevention Program. The state spent about $8 million a year on the media campaign.
The campaign created a lot of resources, such as the Pima County Health Department program Tobacco-Free Ways, that could address youth drinking, he said.
“The commission shouldn’t reinvent the wheel,” Nodora said. “A lot of programs are doing the same thing, creating healthy lifestyles for youth.”
WHAT IS C.A.S.T.?
What: Clean and Sober Theater is available to perform its play on youth substance abuse at schools and other venues. The cost of a performance is $750. Compass Health Care, which pays the director’s salary and other costs, will negotiate.
When: C.A.S.T.’s next scheduled performance is at Sahuarita Middle School at 9 and 10:45 a.m. Wednesday. The Sahuarita auditorium is at 350 W. Sahuarita Road. The performance’s cost was paid by a memorial fund created in memory of four Sahuarita High School students killed in a car crash last year.
How: For information about a performance or other questions, call Cynthia Klein at 349-2524 or e-mail her at email@example.com.
• In 2002, 42 percent of Pima County eighth-graders said they had drunk alcohol in the last 30 days, nearly twice the national rate for the same age group.
• That same year in Pima County, 50 percent of 10th-graders and 59 percent of 12th-graders said they had drunk in the last 30 days. Those are about 10 percent higher than the national rates.
Review of alcohol education in schools called for
By BRAD BRANAN
The instruction that Arnar Benediktsson received in health class about alcohol abuse didn’t stick.
Troubled by the deaths of his father and aunt, he turned to alcohol and drugs provided by “people I thought were my friends.” At 17, he entered a treatment program at his mother’s request.
A year later, he is recovering with the help of an art therapy program run by Compass Health Care. Benediktsson and other members of Clean and Sober Theater say their play on youth substance abuse works better than dry and preachy health classes.
The Tucson/Pima County Commission on Addiction Treatment and Prevention has called for a review of alcohol education programs after finding that students here are more likely to drink than in other parts of the country.
Under the state’s Comprehensive Health Standards, Arizona students must be able to identify “risky behavior,” including drinking.
In Tucson Unified School District, health education isn’t a class requirement until high school, but teachers are supposed to teach alcohol awareness in other elementary and middle school classes, said Sue Habkirk, director of the district’s Comprehensive Health Department.
High school students are required to take a quarter-year health class, a requirement that will double in 2008. Alcohol competes with sexual diseases, tobacco and other issues in the class.
“Is it enough? That’s hard to say,” Habkirk said. “Given that this study found higher drinking rates, we certainly need to continue our efforts.”
The average Pima County student has his or her first drink at age 12, the commission found.
Genesis Quintero, a freshman at Pueblo High School, said students should learn about alcohol earlier.
“This is the age when a lot of us start going to parties,” said Quintero, 14. Beer and liquor, bought by older brothers and sisters, are freely available at parties, she said.
Benediktsson, 18, recalls learning about alcohol in school.
“They need to be a little more creative and interesting,” he said. “They give you all these facts and statistics.”
Pueblo High School freshman Victoria Hernandez started learning about alcohol in health class last week. She said she got the message that alcohol leads to irresponsible behavior but doubts it will stop her from drinking.
“We saw a video, and everyone at the party who’s drinking is having a good time, except for the person who’s not drinking,” said Hernandez, 14.
But junior Omar Membreno said the few days devoted to alcohol in his freshman health class have kept him from drinking.
“It really made me look at the consequences of drinking and made me not want to do it,” said Membreno, 17.
A task force expected to be appointed by the county Board of Supervisors will need to enlist the support of Tucson-area school boards to make changes to health education classes, Palm said.
The TUSD board would be receptive to ways of improving alcohol education, Habkirk said.
• In Arizona and across the country, the average person drinks alcohol for the first time at age 13. In Pima County, he or she is 12.
• Children more familiar with beer advertising are more likely to have a positive attitude about alcohol and express an intention to drink as an adult.
• Underage drinking accounts for $22 billion in sales nationally each year.
• The Tucson Police Department handled 68 cases of furnishing liquor to a minor last year, down 29 percent from the year before.
• The department handled 655 cases of minors in possession of liquor last year, up 12 percent from the year before.
Sources: Tucson/Pima County Commission on Addiction Treatment and Prevention, Tucson Police Department
These signs may indicate a drinking problem, although some of them may be normal teenage growing pains. Experts say they’re more likely to indicate drinking if they happen suddenly and in combination:
• Mood changes such as temper, irritability and defensiveness.
• School problems including low grades and disciplinary action.
• Rebelling against family rules.
• Switching friends, and a reluctance to let you know them.
• A “nothing matters” attitude, with a lack of energy and less interest in appearance and old hobbies.
• Finding alcohol in your child’s room or smelling it on his breath.
• Physical and mental problems such as memory lapses, bloodshot eyes and slurred speech.
Source: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Where to get help
• Information and Referral Services can discuss options for youth alcohol treatment. The service is free at 881-1794
• Alcoholics Anonymous holds meetings specifically for young people. Pima County AA can be reached at 624-4183.
• CODAC offers free assessments for its inpatient treatment programs. Call 318-3266. It also has a list of treatment, counseling and other youth drinking resources in Pima County on the Web at www.codac.org/step_forward.htm. Click on “Pima County Adolescent Community Resource List,”
• Providence of Arizona offers outpatient alcohol treatment for young people. Call 748-7108.
• La Frontera offers outpatient alcohol treatment for young people. Call 884-9920.
• Campus Health Service at the University of Arizona offers short-term counseling and alcohol education classes. Call 621-6483
Source: Information and Referral Services, CODAC