Alcohol abuse is one of the largest health problems facing Alaska, yet we haven't focused enough on environmental strategies to reduce the harm caused by people abusing alcohol. We inadequately fund programs and agencies that are helping people reclaim their lives on the front end, but pay excessively for jail beds, hospitalizations and crime on the back end. Making a meaningful difference will require courageous, creative thinking and a willingness to pass laws and fund strategies that change the actual environment where these decisions are made by people struggling with the disease alcoholism.
With this in mind, it was gratifying to read about the state's plans to move forward with a "24/7 Sobriety" program to help curb Driving Under the Influence (DUI). This program has been used successfully in other states to help chronic DUI defenders change their behavior and prevent additional DUI arrests. This is a classic example of an environmental strategy--an enforcement method that changes the environment for the DUI offender so that he or she must blow into a Breathalyzer multiple times a day and prove sober or face immediate incarceration.
As the recent Anchorage Daily News article noted, participants in other states were half as likely to reoffend.
The 24/7 Sobriety Program also works with to curb domestic violence and child abuse when alcohol use increases the likelihood of these offenses. The state already requires first-time DUI offenders to have an alcohol interlock system installed in their cars. That's another effective environmental strategy. It changes the environment of the car so that the DUI offender can't turn on the car without breathing into Breathalyzer and registering zero alcohol.
Many environmental strategies are laws, policies and enforcement methods that have proven effective in other states to reduce the mortality, morbidity and other harms caused by alcohol abuse. The research and evidence is quite clear: states that have stricter, more numerous laws pertaining to alcohol and traffic-related offenses tend to have lower rates of traffic deaths. No surprise really!
The Alcohol Policy Information System (APIS) (http://alcoholpolicy.niaaa.nih.gov) offers our elected officials a literal menu of evidence-based laws and policies that have worked to change the environment in other states with fantastic results. The site gives current state by state information, so they can see at a glance how far Alaska statutes go or do not go on any given alcohol regulation.
In many towns, villages and boroughs across Alaska, coalitions have formed of caring community members that are already looking at these laws, enforcement methods and programs as a key way to reduce the pain and suffering from alcohol in their communities. Elected officials can contact the coalition in their district to learn about their strategies to address this prominent problem. Additionally, as state officials work on the FY15 budget, they should keep in mind that Alaska has many effective treatment and support programs that help people become and stay sober. These programs complement laws and enforcement to help build healthy Alaska families.
Alaskans have consistently ranked alcohol abuse as the number one health concern in statewide surveys. Clearly, many individuals, families, communities, employers and the government are negatively affected. But contrary to popular rhetoric that this problem is intractable, we can do a great deal to create a healthier environment for our citizens and to encourage healthier choices. Alaska needs more evidence-based approaches like the 24/7 Sobriety and interlock on the enforcement side.
We applaud our state for funding these enforcement programs and urge elected officials to consider stronger evidence-based laws and policies that address alcohol control, sales and enforcement. You will be helping to create healthier communities and healthier Alaskans.
Elizabeth Ripley is executive director of the Mat-Su Health Foundation.
By ELIZABETH RIPLEY