The seats of the New Canaan High School auditorium were filled to capacity last Wednesday night with parents, teachers, health-care workers and town officials from New Canaan and beyond who attended a discussion titled "How to Raise a Drug-Free Kid," by Joseph A. Califano Jr.

Califano launched the nation's anti-smoking campaign in the late 1970s when he served as U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. He is also the founder and chairman of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, and spent the evening sharing anecdotes and facts compiled during two decades of research at CASA.

"We ask kids, `What's your stress level from one to 10?' If they answer between eight and 10, those kids are much likelier to smoke and drink and use drugs. ... Kids with too much money are also more likelier to get into using these substances."

Bluntly, he told parents that today's marijuana is 10 times stronger than the marijuana smoked in the 1970s, and nearly every child will face peer pressure to use drugs or alcohol before graduating high school.

But along with ugly societal truths, Califano shared this: a child who reaches his or her 21st birthday without using drugs, tobacco or alcohol are "virtually certain" never to slip into those habits.

Audience members toted yellow volumes of Califano's parental guide book, "How to Raise a Drug-Free Kid," and many scribbled talking points, statistics and facts as fast as he spout them.

New Canaanite Elena Schlegel, mother of three, said she attended Califano's talk to learn how adolescence has changed since she was a young girl growing up in town.

"I went to this high school," she said. "I know what was going on then; I want to know what's going on now. For me, it's just about getting informed."

Joan Butman, a New Canaan resident with a son in eighth grade and a daughter in 10th grade, said she also attended the lecture to become more informed about teen drug use and prevention.

"I just went through this with a nephew who went through rehab," she said. "I'm here to gather information."

Susan Cox, another New Canaan mother, said she wanted to learn more parenting techniques to discourage teen drug use.

"I know there's not just one thing that works, but I would like to know the top three tips parents can use other than just being present," she said.

Parents have the greatest power to keep their children from using drugs or alcohol, Califano said.

"In [elementary] school, everything's bad -- that's when [your kids] come home and say, `Mommy, stop smoking; Daddy, why do you have a cocktail before dinner? Why did you go to the ice box when you got home for a couple of beers,'" Califano said. "Then, everything's bad. Then in the first six months of middle school they see eighth graders. Your daughter sees a pretty eighth grader who is very popular and she smokes. And your son sees a guy who is very popular and a great athlete and he drinks beer. So then they're saying, `Well, maybe it's not all bad.'

"You should be there then and you should realize they're seeing it."

The start of middle school, high school and college are transient periods when behavioral changes are most likely to lead to substance use in children who previously did not use drugs or alcohol, Califano said.

"This problem is not going to be solved in court rooms and legislative hearing rooms; it's going to be solved in living rooms and dining rooms and, of course, kitchen tables by families and parents -- not by judges," he said, adding, "Over time, we really have to make it cool not to use."