June 16, 2015
Michael Sparks is an alcohol policy specialist who works with communities across the country to address alcohol-related problems using evidence-based strategies.
When the Paso del Norte Health Foundation called on him in 2014 to help with its Shift+ initiative, Sparks’ initial impression was highly positive because of what he saw as the Foundation’s deliberate and thoughtful approach to the problem of binge drinking.
The Foundation’s Shift+ initiative is a new framework to reduce binge drinking in the region. The YMCA serves as the organizing agency in the U.S. FECHAC serves as the organizing agency in Mexico and associate program officer Jana Renner is the Foundation’s key coordinator.
Sparks and David Jernigan, director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, were asked to collaborate as advocacy experts and help shape a strategy in the areas of community building and using the legislative process to reduce underage drinking and binge drinking in all ages.
After years of experience, Sparks can quickly recognize when a community is simply looking to adopt the latest, trendy strategy to make itself feel good rather than using an evidence-based approach to understand and then address a critical problem.
In the Paso del Norte Health Foundation and its Shift+ backbone agency, the YMCA, Sparks found a group that was analytical and discerning in its approach. It wasn’t a group looking for a quick fix, but one that wanted to understand data and how to take a community approach to addressing a serious problem.
“You don’t know how much I appreciate the intentionality of the Shift+ group and the Foundation for being willing to take the lead,” Sparks said. “They weren’t just going to go there until they fully internalized it and when they said, ‘Yeah, let’s move forward’ it hardened their resolve to do something.”
Underage drinking is one critical focus of the Shift+ efforts. Research shows that if a young person drinks by the age of 13, they are five times more likely to be alcohol-dependent or have problems with alcohol as an adult.
The other focus for Shift+ is binge drinking among youth and adults. Binge drinking is defined as five or more drinks for males and four or more drinks for females.
“Once we started to look at the data, it was really clear that there are all kinds of public health implications, and particularly from binge drinking,” said Paso del Norte Health Foundation President Jon Law. “Once that fifth drink – or for women the fourth drink – happens on an occasion, bad things happen. Whether it’s the unintended pregnancies, domestic violence, even sexual violence, or drinking and driving and other substance abuse.”
The Foundation has found great success in addressing smoking in the region through its Smoke-Free Paso del Norte initiative. But, as Law explains, addressing alcohol-related problems within the Foundation’s service area requires an entirely different approach to garner community support.
“With tobacco, the goal is to eliminate smoking. With alcohol, it’s to reduce binge drinking,” Law said. “This approach is called a risk-reduction approach, versus its contrast – the abstinence approach. With smoking we have an abstinence approach. With alcohol we have a risk-reduction approach.”
Part of the challenge for Shift+ is capturing the right data to prescribe solutions; with underage drinking and binge drinking specific data can be hard to collect.
In El Paso, there are no local statistics that will tell the Shift+ group the extent to which underage binge drinking is occurring, but there is general information that shows a problem. For example, in 2014 there were 9,000 calls for loud or unruly parties across the five regional police command centers in El Paso.
Were those house parties where large groups of underage drinkers congregated? In some cases probably, but the information collected by the city doesn’t yet yield that type of insight.
Juárez, Mexico, part of the Foundation’s service area, presents other unique challenges, says Jana Renner, associate program officer for Shift+.
“We’re learning about the alcohol environment in Juárez,” Renner said. “In Juárez you have everything from unlicensed mom-and-pop stores to people selling alcohol out of their homes.”
How to address the problem in El Paso and surrounding counties is one strategy to develop. How to address the same situation in Juárez likely requires additional solutions.
The Shift+ initiative is conducting two advocacy training programs that includes participants from organizations in El Paso, Southern New Mexico, and Juarez. The participants have conducted environmental scans of the region to understand the marketing of alcohol, selling practices, and social settings where young people drink.
Its next steps will be geared toward moving the community to a place of readiness so that there is an understanding of the problem and a conversation about possible solutions.
“It’s changing the context in which people make decisions about whether to drink and how much to drink,” Sparks said.
The Shift+ aim is to develop and have policies adopted that address binge drinking and underage drinking, which are complimented by the educational work that goes on in schools.
Expect to hear more about the proposals of Shift+ in the coming months.
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