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Alcohol in America

By John W. Kennedy

As she drove home after a Saturday evening at a friend's house 13 years ago, 18-year-old Jennifer Gaylor looked forward to starting college, studying music and growing closer to her boyfriend.

A 27-year-old woman on the road that night left a tavern inebriated, then sped through a red light at a Springfield, Mo., intersection. Her 1972 Chevrolet Impala hit Jennifer’s new and lighter Honda Civic broadside and kept going until it pushed the auto into a business parking lot. The drunken driver backed up and drove away.

Jennifer, although wearing a seat belt, died in the wreck.

Jennifer was the only daughter of national Chi Alpha Campus Ministries Director Dennis Gaylor and his wife, Barbara. "As parents we spent a lot of time thinking about how we could protect her and nurture her into adulthood," says Barbara Gaylor, 53. "Despite our best efforts at raising her with a good value system, we were subject to the drunken driving behavior of someone else."

Gaylor helped start a Mothers Against Drunk Driving chapter in southwest Missouri after her daughter’s death and she remains a community activist, providing emotional support and resources to those dealing with drunken driving death or injuries.

Five years after Jennifer’s fatal crash, the Gaylors’ only other child, Jason — who had just turned 18 — had his car totaled when it collided with an auto driven by a drunken driver. Jason survived, but suffered two broken ribs and had to take painkillers for an extended period.

Largely because of organizations such as MADD, alcohol laws are stricter. The legal drinking age has been raised to 21 across the country and the measure for illegal drunken driving has dropped to .08 percent blood alcohol concentration. Subsequently, there has been a 40 percent reduction in drunken driving-related fatalities since 1980. Still, 17,448 people died in wrecks last year in which alcohol was a factor, with an additional 512,510 people being injured. While more people use designated drivers, drunken driving remains the nation’s most frequently committed violent crime.

Christians shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the prevalence of drunkenness and alcohol-related violence in society, according to Gaylor. She has found that, through organizations such as MADD, Christians have opportunities to make a difference by offering alternative solutions to drinking and driving.

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"Jennifer’s death revolutionized the way I see the world," Gaylor says. "I realize that lost people — the broken, the sick, the hurting — need the gospel. Jesus never meant for Christians to create programs and ministries that only meet the needs of other Christians. Most of what happens in my ministry happens in the marketplace outside the church walls."

Growing youth problem
In February, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in New York City released "Teen Tipplers: America’s Underage Drinking Epidemic." The report shows that more than 5 million high school students — nearly one-third of the total — admit to binge drinking (five or more drinks in a row) in the past month.

"The gender gap is gone for youngsters," says Susan E. Foster, director of policy research and analysis for CASA. "Eighth- and ninth-grade girls are drinking and binge drinking at the same rate as boys. It’s a dubious equality. Alcohol is clearly the number one drug for children."

Overall, alcohol use among teens involves 48 percent of girls and 52 percent of boys.

"The younger you start drinking the greater your risks of alcohol problems later in life," says Foster, 54. "People are four times as likely to become an alcoholic if they start before 15."

Foster notes that alcohol damages the brains of young people. "Even three drinks can cause cognitive impairment," she says. It interferes with mental and social development, interrupts academic progress and increases the chances of premarital sex. "If kids drink — not even excessively — they are seven times likelier to have sexual intercourse," Foster says.

Likewise, the risk of criminal involvement and suicide rises among heavy drinkers. According to a National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism report released in April, alcohol is a factor in 600,000 assaults and 70,000 cases of rape each year.

By the 12th grade, 81 percent of students admit to having consumed alcohol, compared to 70 percent who have smoked cigarettes. While the public generally agrees that no social good results from tobacco use, there is much ambivalence about alcohol consumption. According to the Gallup organization, 64 percent of Americans regularly drink alcoholic beverages. Beer is the most popular choice, followed by wine and liquor. Permissive parental attitudes send the wrong message, Foster says.

"Parents send a signal by their behavior if they demonstrate that it takes a drink or two to relax or that you can’t have fun socializing without alcohol," Foster says.

Peer pressure
The habits of friends also can have a powerful influence. Crystal Piggott of Grand Rapids, Mich., read the Bible, prayed and went to church with her family. She excelled in academics and athletics. But at age 17 she started drinking beer, vodka and rum.

"The people I hung out with started drinking so I started drinking," Piggott says. "I couldn’t buy it because of my age, so I would drink what they bought."

Upon finding alcohol in Piggott’s locker, school officials suspended her and she missed part of the softball season. Piggott — and her friends — then proceeded to smoking marijuana and popping Ecstasy pills. Nevertheless, Piggott felt insecure and lonely. She became sexually active. As a community college student, Piggott lost her job as an athletic trainer and dropped out of school.

"None of that would have happened if I didn’t drink," Piggott says. "Drinking affects your memory. It hurts your family; it hurts your future." After completing a Teen Challenge program in Columbus, Ohio, and a year in Master’s Commission in Miami, Piggott has returned to college. Now 21, she hopes to resume playing basketball.

The media message
Far from the days of Prohibition in the 1920s, alcohol permeates American society as a socially acceptable, even expected, rite of passage into adulthood. Children who don’t have drinking friends and aren’t exposed to alcohol in the home have a difficult time avoiding media messages that portray drinking as glamorous and without consequences.

Alcohol manufacturers spend more than $1 billion annually on advertising and product promotion through television shows, Hollywood movies, event sponsorships and more that expands the coverage widely.

The Budweiser talking lizards are more familiar to many children than cartoon characters. Beer, in particular, has become part of the national landscape, perhaps no more so than at the national pastime. The Milwaukee Brewers are a major league baseball team playing in Miller Park. The St. Louis Cardinals play in Busch Stadium; the Colorado Rockies, in Coors Field.

Corporate sponsorships are designed to entice youth. Sam Adams Brewery sponsors a summer concert festival featuring rock stars. Budweiser is the "official beer" of World Cup Soccer. Jack Daniels Whiskey is the "official spirit" of the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association. Jim Beam Bourbon sponsors an Internet search where voters pick the week’s top rock band. Busch Beer subsidizes 34 weekly NASCAR stock car races around the country.

According to the CASA report, underage drinking accounts for 25 percent of consumption and the beer industry would experience a severe economic downturn without it. In a Gallup poll last year, 54 percent of teens indicated they could easily obtain alcohol.

Party down in college
For those who make it through high school without imbibing, college — especially the first year — provides an unprecedented opportunity to experiment.

In high school, drinking is often exploratory. By college it becomes a lifestyle.

"From a collegiate standpoint, drinking is as much a part of students’ culture as books are," says Brad Riley, Chi Alpha leader at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. "The overwhelming majority are participating in drinking parties on almost a continual basis."

Chi Alpha ministries, including a worship center, coffeehouse and activities center, are on the edge of the OSU campus. Seven bars are located within 300 feet of Riley’s office. Vandalized property and broken bottles are a constant reality. Yet Riley, 33, is more concerned about broken people. He has built a relationship with nearby bar owners. "If they see someone drinking into a stupor night after night they will call us," he says.

Binge drinking occurred with 44 percent of college students in the previous two weeks, a Harvard School of Public Health study revealed in March. The highest rate of drinking, particularly underage drinking, happens at college fraternities and sororities.

Riley says indulgent behavior is rampant among college students. "The attitude is I’m going to be a CPA five years from now. But I don’t think I can act this way then, so I better do it now."

The environment encourages such conduct. Several Texas and Florida beach cities aggressively market to student revelers looking for a wild spring break with promotions of all-you-can-drink specials and "booze cruises."

Military no exception
The national drinking age is 21, but that doesn’t pose a problem to many younger enlisted military personnel.

"Drinking alcohol is a common, even accepted, practice in military circles," says U.S. Navy Cmdr. James M. Hightower, an Assemblies of God chaplain assigned to Marines in Camp Lejeune, N.C. "Young people can find ways to obtain alcohol in our society."

Many have faced peer pressure since high school to drink, Hightower says.

"Some really don’t like to drink beer or hard liquor, but they feel as though they have to do it to belong," says Hightower, who has been in the military for 18 years. "Any kind of celebration — a promotion, the birth of a child — compels the use of alcoholic beverages."

Early in his military career, Hightower remembers being in a meeting where the recreation officer suggested that a case of beer be the prize for a holiday picnic athletic contest. Hightower waited for higher-ranking authorities to nix the idea but none did. So he spoke up. He pointed out that presenting alcohol as a reward sent the wrong message. The commanding officer agreed.

Hightower, 51, decided when he became a military chaplain to be with the Marines and sailors as much as possible to gain their trust, and that meant hanging out with them socially. At the clubs on base, alcohol is the presumed first choice in refreshments. He decided his beverage would be water or a soft drink. In the early days, troops repeatedly tried to buy him a beer, which he respectfully, but firmly, declined. Now Hightower is known as a teetotaler and anyone who offers him a stiff drink is immediately besieged by other troops defending the chaplain’s choice.

Today, Hightower says, there are more restrictions on alcohol in the military. For example, most commanders will not allow alcohol to be served at gatherings where children are present. During work hours drinking is forbidden. Before holiday weekends there is always a safety briefing about drinking and driving. Twice a year there is a base-wide safety fair in which photos and videos of alcohol-related crashes are shown.

But Hightower notes that alcohol remains a major contributor to the breakdown of the family. According to a recent Gallup poll, more than one-third of drinkers report that their habit has caused trouble in their families, an all-time high in 50 years of the surveys.

Tolerating drinking can be deadly. Hightower recalls how earlier in his chaplaincy ministry he encouraged a commanding officer to discipline a career sailor whose duties were frequently disrupted because of excessive drinking. The commanding officer, however, not wanting to jeopardize the alcoholic’s retirement, continued to tolerate the behavior. At the time of Hightower’s transfer to another duty station, the man was hospitalized in critical condition with cirrhosis of the liver. Hightower believes the sailor died before reaching retirement.

"There are many resources available if someone is diagnosed as alcohol dependent," Hightower says. "Getting them to admit it is the real battle."

Lifelong pain
For many people, abstinence is necessary, according to Dave Scotch, accreditation manager with Teen Challenge International U.S.A., in Springfield, Mo. He says 50 percent of the enrollees at the organization’s 134 centers have alcohol-related problems, although it’s often in combination with illegal drugs such as cocaine or heroin.

"A lot of it has to do with upbringing and how people cope with life," says Scotch, 38. "If families don’t teach how to deal with the everyday stresses of life, we have to teach them at 30 or 35 years old. Family life is the significant factor in whether somebody goes overboard with drinking."

Janie Wead, pastor of Centro Christiano Casablanca in inner-city Miami, says alcohol abuse is a key factor in the lives of the area’s 6,000 homeless people. Despite repeated thefts of equipment at the church from those desperate to pawn something to buy booze, Wead is determined to provide help.

Members of the Spanish-speaking church, started two years ago, feed and clothe drunks, as well as offer them a shower. It’s a difficult battle; few express an interest in changing. "Alcohol has a grip that is equal to, if not greater than, drug addiction," says Wead, who has been an Assemblies of God minister for 30 years. "We have the only answer to break that bondage: the power of the Holy Spirit."

One who did change is Marcelo Nobile. He had been a gynecologist in Cuba before moving to the United States a decade ago. But in this country, authorities didn’t recognize his medical credentials and Nobile didn’t know English. He could only find menial jobs in restaurants and grocery stores. Subsequently, his wife left him, prompting Nobile’s precipitous downward spiral into alcohol addiction.

Nobile lost his job and began wandering the streets. One day in 2000, he stopped in front of Centro Christiano Casablanca, his head caked with dirt, and began to weep on the sidewalk. Members of the congregation took an interest in him and Nobile made Jesus his Savior. He emerged from 13 months of rehabilitation earlier this year a different person.

Yet it is difficult to bounce back from the toll of alcohol. Nobile, now 50, is looking for work and hopes to become a gynecologist in Florida. Meanwhile, he is counseling those who have a drinking problem.

Police in Springfield, Mo., didn’t find the drunken driver responsible for Jennifer Gaylor’s death until two days after that crash in 1989. Because of the time lapse, all traces of alcohol were out of her system and the 27-year-old driver faced only a leaving-the-scene-of-an-accident conviction, for which she served four months in jail. She later received the same sentence for a driving-while-intoxicated offense in which her car hit a tree.

"She spent as much time in jail for a victimless crime as she did for killing our daughter," Barbara Gaylor says. "I often wonder how different things might have been for us if this young woman had learned a different way to live and make decisions. Maybe she wouldn’t have been drinking that night and our daughter’s life would have been spared. Our choices make a difference not only in our lives but in the lives of others."


John W. Kennedy is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel. E-mail your comments to pe@ag.org.

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