Musings & Observations / Barry Halpin
This piece first appeared in my "Healthy Perspectives" column in the Stamford Advocate on Oct. 15, 2002, in response to the tragedy that occurred in Harrison, New York on April 23, 2002.
I don't think I would get much of an argument from anyone regarding the power of both advertising and alcohol. Combine the two in beer ads on television; show very attractive, sexy people having lots of fun or cute lizards and frogs saying funny things and you have advertising campaigns that have proven over the years to be incredibly successful.
Whether it's the Swedish Bikini Team parachuting from the sky bringing six packs of beer with them, the ultimate male fantasy come true; a group of friends saying "Waz Up?" over and over again; or a couple of lizards making us laugh as they talk about partying, drinking is portrayed as cool, fun and the popular thing to do. These are powerful hard-to-resist images for many young people, for whom image and cool are extremely important.
The whole truth is often left for another day, sometimes with tragic consequences. People getting sick all over themselves, drunk driving accidents and date rape -- all possible consequences of drinking -- run counter to the image advertisers want to portray. In addition, alcohol is usually involved in the three leading causes of death among young people: Accidents, suicide and homicide.
The teen psyche being one of invincibility fuels a lot of risk-taking behavior and makes it harder for them to see the negative consequences of drinking as something real. The "real" for them is more apt to be the image of a nonstop party. You would have to be nuts not to want to hang out with these people, they're your ideal "drinking buddies."
Teens' perception of themselves as invincible often clashes with their parents efforts to talk to them about risky behaviors. It's a constant struggle, a balancing act between parent and child, with the main goal of the parent often being to allay any fears they might have about where, with whom and what their child will be doing that evening.
In 2002, every parent's worst nightmare came true for the Viscome family of Harrison, N.Y. On April 23, school dismissed early because of a power failure and a group of students got together for an afternoon beer bash at the house of a student whose parents were out of town.
Rob Viscome and another student exchanged words, with the dispute supposedly starting small and then escalating as more alcohol was consumed. A punch was thrown, Rob was knocked unconscious by the blow and he hit his head on the pavement when he fell.
Then the unthinkable happened. No one called 911; in fact, it was reported that some teens were saying don't call 911, presumably because they were afraid of getting in trouble for having a party. Normal adolescent anxiety? I fear not; more like anxiety heightened by alcohol to the point where rational thinking was compromised.
It has also been reported that the teens stood around, cleaned up the beer cans and made up a story while Viscome was lying on the ground. The police chief said he might have laid on the concrete patio for up to 20 minutes. When they finally decided to take him to the hospital, they picked him up, then dropped him on his head.
I guess they hadn't seen any beer ads recently, because if they had they would have understood that drinking buddies do not behave that way ... at least in television ads. They laugh, they high five and they don't neglect a buddy in need. But then again, this was not television, this was real life.
Viscome died a week later, never awakening from a coma. If he had any real buddies there that day, they would have called 911 immediately and his life might have been saved. They would have done the right thing because that is what real buddies do. They take care of each other ... no matter what.
In this type of a situation, drinking buddies is an oxymoron. Alcohol changes the equation. Self interest takes center stage and humanity becomes nonexistent. Buddies are nowhere to be found.
I would have hoped that the young people involved would have learned a lesson from what happened. Sadly enough, three weeks ago, another drinking party took place in Harrison and a young man ended up putting his hand through a plate glass window after becoming very angry during an argument about that day's football game.
Most of life's difficult lessons are usually learned from personal experience, but seemingly in this instance the lesson has fallen on deaf ears.
The much easier lesson to learn is the one presented on television in beer ads -- that no matter how much fun you think you are having, alcohol will enhance that pleasure even more. Television is a very powerful medium and as Marshall McLuhan once said, "The medium is the message."
It's extremely important for parents to communicate with their children on these issues at a relatively early age to help them understand the powerful nature of advertising in shaping people's perceptions of reality.
People should pay attention to what Viscome's sister, Valerie, said after the loss of her brother, "Look around and think about who you are with, and think about, would these people help me if I was hurt. Would they call 911, or would they try and cover themselves first?"
I think we all know what a real buddy would do.
Alcohol is the number one drug of choice for America's young people, and is more likely to kill young people than all illegal drugs combined; every year an average of 1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die of alcohol-related injuries, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Each day, 7,000 kids in the United States under the age of 16 take their first drink.
April is Alcohol Awareness Month, an opportunity to raise awareness of alcohol abuse and the health and social problems that excessive alcohol consumption can cause for individuals, their families and their communities, and to encourage people to make healthy and safe choices.
Barry Halpin is a prevention specialist for Liberation Programs, a substance abuse health-care agency based in Stamford that provides substance abuse counseling to adolescents and their families in Darien. He's also the director of the countywide Peer Players, an adolescent theater company. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.