Report: Lax attitudes toward substance use in Routt County a risk factor for problem behavior in youth
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — With marijuana tax revenue providing a significant source of funding, the body of research is growing on the use and misuse of alcohol, marijuana, tobacco and other drugs among youth.
Along with the surveys and studies come a profusion of strategies to minimize the harm of abuse and addiction.
Today’s approach is a far cry from the “Just say no” campaign of the Reagan era, which some studies show had little to no impact on reducing drug use and critics called too simplistic. Others even pointed to negative impacts, such as increasing stigma and preventing youth from receiving accurate information.
“Kids crave information,” said Susan Petersen, facilitator for Communities That Care.
Under the county’s public health agency, Northwest Colorado Health, Communities That Care is one of the marijuana tax revenue-funded efforts to keep kids healthy, happy and geared for success, described Petersen. Its focus is in promoting “positive youth development and preventing youth problem behaviors such as substance use, delinquency, teen pregnancy, dropping out school and violence.”
Petersen described her work not as a program or an organization, but as the building of a framework, which can be used collaboratively in the community toward a common goal. With five years of state funding, Communities That Care is in Phase 3, “developing a community profile,” of a five-phase, evidence-based process.
The first goal is to find out what is really happening with youth in Routt County, Petersen said. In the recently released “Community Assessment Report,” Petersen and a team of community members collected data to determine Routt County’s top risk factors that predict problem behaviors and top protective factors that buffer youth from risk and predict success.
“People think Steamboat is a perfect bubble, and kids have everything at their fingertips,” she said. “That doesn’t mean kids don’t also have problem behaviors.”
The three high-priority risks the team found were all related to the community’s attitudes toward drinking substance use. The report describes the three risk factors as “laws and norms favorable to substance use, parental attitudes favorable to substance use and youth attitudes favorable to substance use.”
Using their own survey of middle and high school students, the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey and public data, the assessment found a relatively positive perception of alcohol and marijuana use, higher than national and state averages, which is “closely tied to the recreation industry’s positive promotion of the ‘party’ culture.”
The media is to blame as well, according to the report, for supporting “activities that are either sponsored by or directly promote purveyors’ of alcohol and cannabis.”
Youth in Routt County believe there is a lax enforcement of laws for both marijuana and alcohol, the data found. Almost half of the youth surveyed reported both are easily accessible and available. Routt County has 4.6 liquor stores per 10,000 people, compared to 2.4 per 10,000 in the state as a whole. Data also showed adults in Routt County have a higher rate of binge drinking on a regular basis — 25.6 percent, compared to 18.1 percent for the state.
The overall culture, along with the reported higher favorable attitudes of parents and youth, gives Petersen a focus on Routt County’s most pressing concerns for the next phases of the Communities That Care process — creating a plan followed by implementation and evaluation.
The top protective factor for Routt County was identified as “opportunities for prosocial involvement.” Finding meaningful ways to engage in the community can reduce the likelihood of substance abuse and other problem behaviors, research shows.
The good news is Steamboat Springs provides those opportunities, which Petersen is now working to find ways to enhance. Part of her goal is not to duplicate efforts already underway, but to create more collaboration as well as a resource guide.
She’s identified about 80 different entities in the area serving youth, groups Petersen hopes to align using the Communities That Care framework to better make a collective impact in the community.
Some other key findings of the assessment show that marijuana use is not seeing a significant increase in youth over the past few years.
Statewide, marijuana use has remained stable among young people and increased slightly among adults, according to surveys conducted by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
In 2013, 20 percent of youth said they used marijuana. In 2017, 19 percent said they had, according to the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey. The national average for youth in 2017 for marijuana use was 20 percent.
Another study, the 2018 Rise Above Colorado Youth Survey, showed 17 percent said they’d used marijuana. In that survey, 37 percent had used alcohol, 2 percent used meth and 4 percent used prescription pain relievers.
The Communities That Care assessment found that 68.2 percent of Hayden High School students reported trying alcohol, with 58 percent at Soroco and 61.1 percent at Steamboat. The three schools showed about 11 percent of students reported using prescription drugs without a prescription. For marijuana, 41 percent at Hayden reported trying it, 21.1 percent at Soroco and 31.6 at Steamboat.
Of course, it must be noted that surveys are only as good as the honesty of the kids taking them.
The Rise Above survey showed teens are decreasingly likely to perceive alcohol and marijuana as risky but are increasing their perception of risk when it comes to prescription pain relievers.
The big new trend found across the body of research is in youth vaping.
“Vaping caught everyone by surprise,” Petersen said.
Across Colorado, youth are vaping nicotine at twice the national average, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Colorado had the highest vaping rate of 37 states surveyed.
The Rise Above survey showed 78 percent who reported vaping said they used nicotine-free flavoring. However, nearly all the products sold at convenience stores contain nicotine.
Petersen sees progress in some areas and more work to be done in others. Her focus is to ensure the changes are community-led and youth-driven, with an emphasis on supporting the drivers keeping kids engaged and having a strong sense of support and self worth.
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