We can curb high alcohol and drug use by Santa Monica youth.

Earlier this year a new survey revealed the vast majority (86%) of Santa Monica youth find it “somewhat” or “very easy” to get alcohol, and house parties and other social settings are where they often consume it. According to the California Healthy Kids Survey, 46% of juniors have smoked marijuana, and 26% used it within the prior 30 days.

The many resulting problems are not limited to those youth who are drinking or using drugs. Underage drinking often brings drunk driving with its potential for related deaths and injuries, fights, sexual assaults, unintended pregnancies, and vandalism. Marijuana is the primary drug associated with a spike in drugged driving deaths and injuries in recent years.

This is not about morality. This is about the negative impacts to those involved and the tremendous societal burden shared by us all.

Youth substance use drains our wallets. Santa Monica spends millions every year on alcohol- and drug-related problems including vehicle crashes, lost work, emergency room services, as well as draining law enforcement and emergency services time.

Underage and excessive alcohol consumption costs Los Angeles County residents 2,500 lives and over $10 billion annually on such things as emergency services, lost work, and injuries.

In short, substance abuse is one of the biggest public health burdens of our time.

Underage drinking and related problems in Santa Monica don’t happen in a vacuum. They stem from practices of individuals, businesses, and other entities in our community. And these practices stem from the cultural-social-physical environment that exists here.

Addressing the social-cultural-physical environment as a means to improve overall health, safety, and quality of life is what’s known as “environmental prevention.”

Environmental prevention includes:

Changing norms about how people feel and act regarding underage drinking, youth marijuana use, and binge drinking such as moving away from the social acceptability of driving drunk or parents hosting underage drinking parties.

Limiting the ease of access and availability of substances to youth such as making it harder for those under 21 to get alcohol. For example, stores and bars consistently refusing to sell to minors helps limit frequency of youth alcohol use.

Adopting and enforcing standards or policies such as prohibiting adults from hosting parties where youth have access to alcohol.

As with strategic efforts to affect public health challenges such as vehicle safety or smoking — these changes don’t come overnight, but are widespread and permanent. It’s inconceivable that we’ll go back to doctors advertising cigarettes, smoking on airlines, widespread driving without seatbelts, or new cars without airbags. While environmental prevention is not a quick fix, it is worth our effort for the significant, lasting benefits it brings.

Unfortunately, we have major problems to solve here.

Santa Monica youth have very high rates of alcohol and other drug use. According to a survey of youth released in February, more than half attended at least three house parties in the last year where alcohol was available. The survey of Santa Monica youth, ages 16 to 20, further revealed that 15% are binge drinking (consuming five or more drinks within two hours) at least one day per month, and almost a third (28%) of those who have used alcohol blacked out at least once.

Solving these problems is not about a single quick fix. We’re complex creatures, with stresses of family relations, school pressures, social pressures, and work pressures. And communities are complex, networks of individuals. Effective solutions must be comprehensive and multifaceted as well.

Environmental prevention is not a substitute for alcohol and drug treatment or individual awareness approaches. However, we can’t put a fish in a dirty tank and expect it to stay clean. We need environmental prevention to help provide and maintain a healthy community for all to thrive in.

Environmental prevention approaches not only reduce injuries and deaths and bolster quality of life, they can save us millions of dollars. To pursue environmental prevention is to pursue an “upstream” approach — getting ahead of and preventing many problems before they occur and can cause damage to individuals and our entire community.

Environmental prevention requires an intelligent approach that seeks to engage community members, interface with media, utilize data and research to understand the problem and solutions that work, engage with law enforcement, and involve policy-makers such as the city council.

Let’s work together to prevent youth alcohol and other drug use in Santa Monica. Making Santa Monica safer through this lasting approach won’t happen unless we engage in and support the solutions. These solutions require active community involvement. It’s our obligation – for the well-being of our community and our youth – to do so.

By Marilyn Wexler 

Marilyn Wexler is a recently retired health care consultant, board member with the Institute for Public Strategies, and 40-year resident of Santa Monica.

Photo: abc.net.