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Huge turnout at Highland Park High School alcohol forum

Dr. AarWhite an expert underage college drinking from National Institutes Health talks about affects alcohol Monday District 113 forum HighlPark

Dr. Aaron White, an expert on underage and college drinking from the National Institutes of Health, talks about the affects of alcohol Monday at a District 113 forum at Highland Park High School. | Brian O'Mahoney~for Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 19, 2013 1:15PM

HIGHLAND PARK ­— The huge teen turnout Monday night for a parent-sponsored forum on alcohol use was quickly explained when a curious reporter asked Highland Park High School’s principal if extra-credit incentives had been offered.

A smile came over Brad Swanson’s face.

But instead of extra credit, the HPHS principal had made attendance a condition for attending prom.

“I know tonight is a mandatory event for some in the audience, but it’s also a voluntary event for many others,” Swanson told the audience of teens and parents before he introduced Dr. Aaron White, program director of Underage and College Drinking Prevention and Research at the National Institutes on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

The forum, “Is Alcohol Affecting Your Teenager’s Potential?” was hosted by three District 113 parents organizations: The Deerfield Parent Network, the Highland Park High School PTO and Parents, the Anti-Drug.

White made it clear that he wasn’t going to get preachy, or suggest that bad things always happen to those who drink.

“This is not a ‘Just Say No’ diatribe,” said White. “My objective is to just tell you what we know, so that you can make the best choices for yourselves. For the majority of you who progress through life and drink alcohol, nothing bad will happen.

“But for about 10 to 20 percent of you, you will go on to become alcoholics at some point in your lives. While not all of you are going to struggle with alcohol, some of you are.”

White said the reasons young people drink alcohol are related both to brain changes that predispose them to experimentation and cultural messages. The brain changes are nature’s way of preparing adolescents for independence and breaking out on their own.

“From generation to generation, there have been messages portraying alcohol as some sort of elixir and conveying that good things will happen when you drink.”

The media messages don’t jibe with reality, said White, noting that young men perceive that drinking alcohol makes then more attractive to women, while young women say they’re less attracted to men who drink.

The expert noted that college often is depicted as a place where everyone is getting drunk.

“Its just not true,” said White, sharing empirical data. “Sure, you can always find people in college to get drunk with, if you choose to do that.”

One common myth is that European cultures that expose youngsters to alcohol at an early age are less prone to problem drinking. But that, too, is not true, the expert noted.

“I was surprised as everyone else when the data came in,” said White, noting that teenagers in the U.S. were found to consume less alcohol than all but one of the 35 countries studied.

Another myth, he said, is that teenagers whose parents let them drink at home consume less alcohol outside the home.

“As parents, we think we are doing them a favor exposing them to a good life lesson,” White said. “Teens whose parents let them drink at home tend to consume more alcohol outside the home.”

Among students at Highland Park and Deerfield high schools, alcohol usage doubles between 10th and 12th grades, according to the District 113 results on the statewide Illinois Youth Survey. The self-reported rate of “binge drinking” quadruples.

More than one-third of seniors reported a recent epode of binge drinking when taking the survey in the spring of 2012. Binge drinking was defined as consuming five or more alcoholic beverages at a time. The self-reported rate, 38 percent, was up from previous surveys in 2008 and 2010.

So was the proportion of seniors, 61 percent, who said they’d consumed alcohol within the past 30 days.

“It is a time for parents to be so vigilant in communicating with their teens that they do not expect them to begin using drugs or alcohol,” said Kasey Silberman, chair of Parents, The Anti-Drug, an organization of parents, municipal and school officials, clergy and health providers in Bannockburn, Deerfield, Highland Park, Highwood and Riverwoods.

“Research shows that parental disapproval is the No. 1 reason youth choose not to drink.”

When asked, “How wrong do your parents feel it would be for you to drink alcohol regularly?” nine out of 10 sophomores said their parents would think it wrong or very wrong. Among seniors, the perceived rate of disapproval dropped to 67 percent.

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