Local groups work to dispel partying myth
The common belief that most kids in Aspen are smoking pot and binge drinking doesn’t represent the truth, according to a recent poll about local student lifestyles.Valley Partnership for Drug Prevention and Aspen Valley Hospital are sponsoring a series of print and radio advertisements pointing out that Aspen may not be the party town with the permissive attitudes toward underage drinking that its reputation suggests.The point of the ad campaign is to combat the notion that everyone is doing drugs and drinking heavily in Aspen, and to plant the seed that many people are engaging in healthy lifestyles.It’s based on a concept known as “social norming,” where people make the same kinds of choices they think other people are making – good or bad. For example, if locals think everyone else in town is partying, they’re likely to try partying themselves.Valley Partnership and the hospital surveyed parents, students and teachers on their attitudes and actions about various health topics, including underage drinking, illegal drug use, seat belt use and riding in vehicles with impaired drivers.”Negative misperceptions can drive behavior,” said Shelly Molz, Valley Partnership’s executive director. “If people believe everyone is smoking pot or binge drinking, people are more likely to try it.”The majority of local kids say they don’t binge drink or drink and drive, and parents reported that they’re doing what they can to steer kids away from irresponsible behavior.Valley Partnership for Drug Prevention is a nonprofit established 23 years ago by a grassroots group of parents, teachers, kids and community members to “try and create a healthy community,” Molz said. The new strategy developed when Molz learned about the social norming concept at a conference several years ago.The concept is gaining popularity among health advocates who say they’re sick of the overly negative campaigns they refer to as “health terrorism.” One example was the ubiquitous 1980s advertisement “This is your brain; this is your brain on drugs.” Social norming, on the other hand, is considered the “science of the positive.”And it has already gotten some exposure at Aspen High School.In April 2003, nearly 100 percent of Aspen High School students participated in an anonymous, scientific survey that quizzed them on their attitudes and actions about underage drinking, drug use, seat belt use and riding in vehicles with impaired drivers.A number of the responses were overwhelmingly positive, Molz said – although the kids’ perceptions may be that their peers are regularly using marijuana and alcohol, the truth is that the vast majority are not using these substances.During the spring of 2004, Valley Partnership released the results to the students in a positive campaign that included T-shirts, posters and buttons. Many may not have believed the positive messages, but Molz said it was all based in fact.”We want to spin the truth,” Molz said. “The majority of them are making healthy decisions, don’t use tobacco, illegal drugs, and haven’t had alcohol at a party or drank to drunkenness.”However, if one statistic stuck out, it was that while national data says that less than 50 percent of teenagers in the country are drinking alcohol, in Aspen the survey placed drinking at 64 percent of local teens.The most recent campaign began when Molz teamed up with Aspen Valley Hospital to get the word out that according to related surveys of local parents and teachers, the community is trying to combat underage drinking.”This hospital’s focus is on the ill and injured, but we do feel an obligation to contribute to the community’s overall health,” said Ginny Dyche, director of community relations for Aspen Valley Hospital. “Social norms made sense – it seemed like a reasonable concept.”Ads ran this winter and will continue through the end of the school year in local print media and on the radio, asserting that most adults in Aspen believe the community should work together to prevent underage drinking.”The beauty of this campaign is that it’s not judgmental – it’s just clarifying the fact that parents are being responsible,” Dyche said. “By doing that, it should have a positive impact on people.”Pitkin County Commissioner Dorothea Farris is the voice for one of the radio advertisements, Aspen resident and father Art Daily is another.Ideally, Valley Partnership for Drug Prevention and Aspen Valley Hospital would like to expand into additional campaigns about local attitudes toward illegal drug use, seat belt use and drinking and driving. Molz said the organization will have to seek grants and local sponsors for further campaigns.Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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