PORTLAND – Everyone in the United States pays the cost of substance abuse.

The consequences of substance abuse have touched all of us, through personal or family experience, and as victims of crime or violence.

During these trying economic times, there is an emphasis on understanding how our dollars are being spent. The total estimated cost of substance abuse in Maine is $898.4 million a year. That’s $682 for every resident. Less than 1 percent of that was spent on prevention.

The recently released OneMaine Community Health Needs Assessment 2010 reports that, nationally and in Maine, alcohol is the most commonly abused substance.

Fifteen percent of Maine adults participated in binge drinking — i.e., having five or more drinks (males) or four or more drinks (females) on one occasion in the past 30 days.

According to the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey (MIYHS), 21 percent of youth in grades 9-12 participated in binge drinking in the past 30 days. Of those, 35 percent drank alcohol, 24 percent used marijuana, and 11 percent misused prescription drugs.

Today’s youth are tomorrow’s health outcomes.

According to the MIYHS, alcohol is our children’s number one drug of choice, just like adults. What’s more, alcohol kills more youth than all other drugs combined. Two-thirds of underage drinking deaths are caused not by car crashes, but by suicides, homicides, alcohol poisonings and unintentional injuries such as drowning, falls and burns.

Other consequences can include depression, sexual assault, sexually transmitted infection, unwanted pregnancy, academic failure and committing or being a victim of a violent crime.

We have an opportunity to improve our future by learning from the latest research on the developing adolescent brain. The drive for risk-taking and thrill-seeking develop early on, while judgment and reasoning aren’t fully formed, and continue into the mid-20s.

In addition, the teen brain is like a huge learning sponge. Pathways are strengthened and solidified during the teen years, making the years prime for learning languages, music, math, and for developing behavior patterns.

Unfortunately, these are also prime years for learning addiction. Studies show that youths who begin drinking between the ages of 15 and 17 are four times as likely to abuse alcohol as people who wait.

Prevention needs to start early and we all play a vital role — teachers, coaches, law enforcement, media and especially parents.

Parents are the No. 1 influence on their children’s decisions around drugs and alcohol. Talking about alcohol and drugs with your kids and your kids’ friends’ parents should start early and continue throughout the high school years and beyond.

Create rules and enforce them. Harsh punishments aren’t necessary but consistency is. Count and lock up your alcohol and prescriptions. Your supply is often their supply.

Check where they are going, who they will be with and don’t be afraid to ask if there will be other adults or alcohol present. Wait up for them to come home and talk about their evening.

On a state level, Maine needs to give priority to funding for prevention. Every dollar spent on prevention saves at least $7 in future costs.

The 2010 Report Card on Maine Substance Abuse Services recommends improving the way Maine organizes and delivers alcohol and drug prevention and treatment.

Among its recommendations: treat substance abuse as a public health issue; prioritize funding for juvenile intervention with high-risk youth; and do a comprehensive analysis of the state alcohol control and licensing system.

We cannot look at alcohol as a revenue generator. Instead, we need to look at drug and alcohol abuse as a cost center with a bottom line deficit that we cannot afford on any level.

Jo Morrissey is project manager for 21 Reasons, a coalition of individuals, organizations and businesses supporting the drug-free development of youth.

– Special to the Press Herald