By Joseph A. Califano, Jr.
For every $100 Florida spends on substance abuse and addiction, a whopping $97.57 goes to shoveling up its wreckage in crime, health-care costs, child abuse, domestic violence, homelessness and other social ills, while only $1.83 goes to prevention, treatment and research. In fact, if substance abuse and addiction had its own state budget category, the $6.2 billion Florida spends shoveling up this wreckage would rank second just behind state spending on elementary and secondary education.
The time has come to recognize and accept that substance abuse is the nation’s — and Florida’s — No. 1 public health problem and we have to educate Americans about the fearful price we pay for alcohol and other drug use. Instead of stigmatizing addiction, we should recognize that it’s a pediatric disease. Adult addicts overwhelmingly trace their substance abuse demons to their adolescent years.
Before graduating from high school, every American child will be offered the opportunity to smoke, drink, get drunk and get high on inhalants, marijuana or other illegal or prescription drugs. Most girls and boys will get such offers many times, from classmates, friends or older siblings, often beginning in middle school. The choice they make may be the most important decision of their lives. Why? Because a child who gets through age 21 without smoking, using illegal drugs or abusing alcohol is virtually certain never to do so.
Availability is the mother of use, and today’s teens are exposed on a daily basis to a dizzying menu of addictive illegal and prescription drugs, alcohol, malternatives, candy-flavored chewing tobacco and inhalants. These substances usually are just a cell phone, school locker, classroom, Internet click or arm’s reach away, with parents stocking a wide variety of substances in their own homes.
Parents have more power to influence their children — for better or worse — than anyone else. Their engagement in their children’s lives — eating dinner together, going to their children’s events, helping with homework, listening as well as sending clear messages that use of alcohol, tobacco and drugs is unacceptable — greatly reduces the risk of substance abuse.
But parents can’t do it alone. The time for a public health campaign focusing on prevention and the health and safety of America’s kids is now.
In these economic times, spending virtually all taxpayer dollars on the consequences of tobacco, alcohol and other drug abuse and addiction and an infinitesimal amount to relieve individuals and taxpayers of this burden is an unconscionable and reckless misallocation of public funds. Society’s failure to protect our children has seeded a metastasizing cancer throughout our nation, killing and crippling millions of individuals, spawning crime, destroying families and bequeathing a legacy of private agony and public cost that affect the way all of us live and many of us die. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Califano, secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under President Jimmy Carter, is chairman and president of The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University and author of How to Raise a Drug-Free Kid: The Straight Dope for Parents. Califano, an attorney, also was a special assistant on domestic affairs to President Lyndon Johnson.
Appeared in TCPalm.com on January 8, 2010