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Shannon Corregan: Talk about booze without scare tactics

After much research, deliberation and public engagement, the B.C. government has decided to endorse all 73 recommendations of the B.C. Liquor Policy Review’s final report.

After much research, deliberation and public engagement, the B.C. government has decided to endorse all 73 recommendations of the B.C. Liquor Policy Review’s final report.

Although there’s no news yet on when the changes will be implemented, British Columbians can expect to see happy hour, family-friendly pubs, the end of gated beer gardens and maybe even alcohol in grocery stores, depending on how the licensing pans out.

These changes have been almost universally greeted as economic and social positives. As I discussed in January, however, this optimism runs counter to what we know about the public-health dangers of alcohol. Despite the hazards of alcohol, we have an entrenched and well-beloved drinking culture — so what do these changes mean for potentially vulnerable populations, such as youth?

Alcohol is a drug; it’s not benign. It can also be a lot of fun. The same can be said for cannabis, illegality notwithstanding, and a lot of other things besides. So the key question is, how do parents and educators talk to children wisely about this sort of stuff in the context of relaxed alcohol regulations and its widespread cultural acceptance?

Last week, I sat down for coffee with Cindy Andrew of the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C. Andrew is a school-program consultant and promotes health literacy among B.C. students. She’s advocating a philosophical shift in the way educators talk to students (and consequently the way students talk to each other) about drugs, sex and health overall.

The most important shift, she argues, is to avoid scare tactics. Scare tactics are well-meaning, but their ineffectiveness has been proven time and time again. The “tick-box” approach to health education (Alcohol? Pot? Sex? They’ll destroy your life. Just say no. Moving on!) doesn’t give students any credit. When we paint alcohol as the Worst Thing Ever, they know we’re lying.

Just like abstinence-only sex education, this approach underestimates the creativity and intelligence of young people. It hands down inviolable precepts about grey-area issues instead of engaging students in the conversation.

It does no good to lay down autocratic rulings when these rulings are clearly hypocritical; any engaged young person can see that we live in a society that values drinking and sex and certain drugs. The relaxation of our alcohol rules proves just that.

Instead, we can concentrate on creating a nurturing school community, with strategies that focus on the consequences of risky behaviours without inflicting obstructive punitive measures. A supportive school environment, Andrew suggests, is the most effective drug and alcohol policy a community can have.

Focusing on students as whole people, with their own identities and situation-specific needs, reframes the issue from “How are they going to screw up?” to “How do we help them grow?”

It sounds cheesy, but it works. For example, recent studies have shown that schools with gay-straight alliances have less bullying, not only of students who identify as LGBTQ, but of all students. When students start talking explicitly about positive, constructive behaviour, they begin modelling that behaviour to their peers, and will carry that behaviour forward into other situations.

It’s the difference between learning something by rote (“Drugs are bad!”) and learning the logic behind the rote statement (“Drugs can be dangerous and we’re afraid you might get hurt”). Scare tactics have more to do with adult anxieties than effectiveness.

We need to allow our students to develop the capacity to make good decisions based on good principles. This means that we need to develop their abilities to make good choices, rather than stifling them. And the most important factor in this strategy is honesty.

Young people aren’t stupid, and drugs aren’t “bad”; they are both helpful and harmful, depending on the context. Missing Friday classes to toke up? Probably harmful, because you’re missing classes, and your growing teenage brain is more easily harmed.

Relaxing with a beer after work? Probably helpful — except for the known carcinogens.

The addiction centre’s latest project, iMinds, allows parents and educators to escape the hypocrisy of the scare-tactic method by increasing students’ drug literacy. These modules are part of a larger project to encourage young people to “survive and thrive” in a world where they are vulnerable to the risks and dangers that we’ve already (we hope) learned to navigate.

Happy hour is coming, and this is our opportunity to engage with young people openly and honestly.


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