Interview with Stephen Wallace of SADD

February 16th, 2011

We interviewed Stephen Wallace, national chairman of SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions). Wallace shared his thoughts and knowledge regarding underage drinking and the U.S. drinking age law.

AllTreatment: Can you briefly explain who SADD are and what you do for the organization?

Wallace: SADD is the nation’s preeminent peer-to-peer education, prevention, and activism organization focusing on such issues as underage drinking, other drug use, driving, violence, and teen suicide.  I serve SADD as its board chairman and chief executive officer, a volunteer position, overseeing the general operation of the organization in conjunction with its executive director. I also serve as the primary media spokesperson for SADD and run its research programs.

AllTreatment: What are SADDs main goals and beliefs?

Wallace: SADD’s goals are to provide the best information and resources available to young people as they work to educate their peers and keep them safe.

AllTreatment: While underage drinking rates have declined over the years, the problem is clearly still rampant in the United States.

Wallace: According to SADD’s Teen Today research, 63 percent of middle and high school students say they have used alcohol. That is a problem indeed.  But the silver lining is that it also means that 37 percent of middle and high school students have never used alcohol at all. That is a large number and we need to do a better job of getting the word out to kids that there is a healthy, robust peer group out there having a great time without using alcohol or other drugs. Also:

  • The younger a child is when he or she starts to drink, the higher the chances he or she will have alcohol-related problems later in life.
  • Alcohol use by teens affects still-developing cognitive abilities and impairs memory
and learning.
  • Teens that drink are more likely to commit or be the victim of violence (including sexual assault) and to experience depression and suicidal thoughts.
  • Alcohol-related automobile crashes kill thousands of teens each year and injure millions more.

Although alcohol consumption is often perceived as less of a concern among anti-drug efforts, underage drinking clearly remains a substantial threat. Indeed, it has been estimated that the annual cost to be $53 billion in losses from traffic deaths, violent crime, and other destructive behavior . . . to say nothing of the damage to mental health, school performance, and relationships with parents and peers. It is past time to reconcile the forces of indifference and indulgence that perpetuate underage drinking with the urgent need to protect children.

AllTreatment: What factors lead teens to start drinking?

Wallace: The factors teens consider when making such decisions change in number and relative importance depending on the age of the child and the decision to be made. The factors regularly cited by teens include:

  • Mental states (e.g., depression, anxiety, stress, boredom, curiosity);
  • Personal goals (e.g., to feel grown up, to fit in, to take risks);
  • Potential outcomes (e.g., Are others doing it? What are the chances of getting caught? What are the potential consequences?); and,
  • Significant people (e.g., parents, friends, siblings, clergy).

AllTreatment: The United States has the highest minimum drinking age the world: 21. What is your stance on this age limit? Do you support it, or feel that it should be lowered–or even raised?

Wallace: Well, the science would suggest raising it might be a good idea, but there is nothing in the literature or the science that suggests lowering the minimum legal drinking age would be a good idea. In fact, the 21 law has been credited with lowering crash death rates among young people by 60 percent.

AllTreatment: Do you believe that such a high age standard for alcohol consumption helps or hurts American youth?

Wallace: No, I don’t.

AllTreatment: As you know, the European drinking model is the idea that parents should teach their children how to drink responsibly by allowing them to drink in moderation at home before reaching the age of 21. Do you agree or disagree with this model? If so, why? If not, how is it detrimental to young peoples drinking habits?

Wallace: In fact, every single European country (except Turkey, which probably has to do with religious influence) with a lower drinking age than the United States has a higher rate of intoxication by youth than do we.  Secondly, Teens Today research reveals that kids whose parents “teach” them to drink at home, or otherwise allow alcohol consumption in the home are overwhelmingly more likely to go off and drink with their friends.

AllTreatment: Finally, how do you propose we solve the issues of underage alcohol consumption and teenage binge drinking?

Wallace: A recent report from the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine of the National Academies (Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility) sounds the alarm on an epidemic of underage drinking in America. In the spirit of “it takes a village,” it also serves up a strategy suggesting the participation of most all segments of society. From parents and pubs, to cops and congressmen, everybody has a role to play. As well they should. Teens Today research from SADD and Liberty Mutual Group points to some startling facts about youth and alcohol.

  • Drinking increases significantly between the 6th and 7th grades.
  • The average age for teens to start drinking is thirteen years old.
  • By 12th grade, more than three in four teens are drinking.

Perhaps most significant, the report suggests an array of youth-oriented interventions aimed not just at increasing self-esteem or decreasing peer pressure, but also at activities that educate, intervene and enforce. Making those activities effective, however, requires a close examination of the factors that influence young people to drink in the first place.

Not surprisingly, some teens say they drink to have fun, to fit in, or just to do what their classmates seem to be doing. But engaging in destructive behaviors is not just about “having a good time.” Many teens, particularly older ones, drink to escape problems. Left unaddressed, those problems can pose a significant risk to healthy social and emotional development. So too does a lack of experience in solving them.

The data also indicate other key drivers of decisions about alcohol, including depression, anxiety, stress, and boredom; a desire to feel grown up and to take risks; a fear of getting caught; and the influence of parents, friends, and siblings.

There are practical approaches adults can take to reduce the likelihood that young people will turn to alcohol.

  • Monitor their emotional health – and intervene at signs of trouble. Anxiety, and its close cousin depression, correlates highly with alcohol use. So does boredom … so find things for teens to do that both stimulate and challenge.
  • Help them achieve their goals. Teens want to be successful, to grow up and to take risks. Channel that risk-taking toward activities that enhance healthy socialization with peers and positive feelings about themselves. Also, take time to point out ways in which alcohol use can interfere with success in academics and athletics.
  • Establish (and enforce) consequences for bad behavior. Young people need clear boundaries and appreciate adults who care enough to patrol them.
  • Encourage relationships with good role models, be they adult, teen or child. According to Teens Today research, 6th – 12th graders report parents, close friends, and other family members are most influential in their decisions not to drink.

For more information on underage drinking prevention and to get involved with SADD, visit

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