WASHINGTON -- Wyoming has some of the highest rates of alcohol dependence or abuse in the nation, with south-central Wyoming ranking first among all areas of the country, a new federal report on substance abuse rates from 2002 to 2004 shows.
The report, which measured drug and alcohol abuse by geographic regions within states, showed that Albany and Carbon counties in south-central Wyoming had the highest rate in the country of past-year alcohol dependence or abuse, at 13.5 percent.
Of the 15 areas with the highest rates of past-year alcohol dependence or abuse, most were in seven states in the West and Midwest, including Wyoming and Montana.
Experts in substance abuse prevention and treatment in the two states attribute the problem largely to a widespread cultural acceptance of alcohol use, social norms and the early age at which many young people begin drinking or using drugs.
"We have very much of a belief you can drink and drive as long as you don't hurt anybody, that open containers are OK," said Laura Schmid-Pizzato, manager of recovery services at the Southwest Counseling Service in Sweetwater County. "We've got a very different belief about alcohol use in our state than in other states, and that tends to lead to higher rates of underage drinking."
The same area of south-central Wyoming also had the nation's highest rate of alcohol or illicit drug dependence or abuse, at 15 percent.
Nine of the 15 areas with the highest rates of use of an illicit drug other than marijuana in the past month were in six Western states, including Wyoming.
Schmid-Pizzato said Wyoming has been ranked first in the nation in binge drinking for youth.
"The earlier you start using, the bigger chance you have of getting addicted later on," she said. "Whenever you've got a high incidence of underage drinking, you're going to have more incidence of alcohol dependence."
Most research shows that if you can delay children from using tobacco, alcohol or methamphetamine by five years, addiction rates will drop dramatically, she added.
At her center, meth has become the No. 1 diagnosis, even though it is unusual for any drug to top alcohol. "I think once meth really gets a stronghold on your community it's very hard to turn that around," she said.
Nationally, the report showed 7.66 percent of Americans suffered alcohol dependence or abuse in the past year. In Wyoming that rate was 9.37 percent, with the south-central area at 13.54 percent. The second-highest region, consisting of Fremont, Sublette and Teton counties, had a rate of 9.89 percent.
Albany County includes the University of Wyoming, which is probably why that section of the state rated highest in the report, said Sharon Guerney, coordinator for the Wyoming First Lady's Initiative to Reduce Childhood Drinking.
"My personal observation from working on this, is yes, there is a high concentration there, but the pervasiveness of the problem is statewide," she said. "The university inherits students from all over the state, and they don't start drinking at this level and this age... The university inherits this problem from communities all over the state."
Guerney said she thinks the alcohol abuse rates stem from a "higher level of acceptance" of drinking in the state. She said a measurable number of 9- and 10-year-olds in the state are using alcohol on a regular basis.
She noted that first lady Nancy Freudenthal has been talking to parents and communities about the problems of childhood drinking through town hall meetings and other venues. Parents sometimes feel that since they too drank growing up it's simply a rite of passage, but don't know the new science on how alcohol affects adolescents' brains, she said.
"When people do their community festivals, no one is saying they should be alcohol free," Guerney said. "But have a beer tent that's separate from the other family functions.... None of these things cost money, it's just pay attention."
As for drugs, the national estimate of Americans who used illicit drugs in the past month was 8.13 percent, or 3.64 percent when marijuana is excluded. In Wyoming an estimated 7.37 percent of the population had used illicit drugs in the past month, or 3.76 percent without marijuana. South-central Wyoming had a 9.38 rate of past-month illicit drug use and 4.69 percent without marijuana.
Some experts in the field said the report might not have surveyed enough Wyoming residents, but all agreed that the state ranks high in substance abuse in other surveys as well.
The report shows that almost all Rocky Mountain states have a "pretty serious" problem with alcohol, noted Janet Jares, prevention program manager for the Substance Abuse Division of the Wyoming Department of Health.
But Jares said that several other surveys the state uses show that the trends have improved since the mid-1990s in Wyoming. For instance, 45.4 percent of surveyed Wyoming high school students in 2005 reported using alcohol in the past month, down from a high of 55 percent in 1997.
In 2005, 17.8 percent of the students reported using marijuana in the past month, down from 23.4 percent in 1997. Also in 2005, 8.5 percent reported using meth in the past month, down from 12.6 percent in 1999.
Among Wyoming adults, 14.4 percent reported past-month binge drinking, or having five or more drinks on one occasion, in 2005, down from 18.1 percent in 2002.
Jares noted that the state alcohol tax is "just pennies on the gallon," and that price matters with alcohol. She also said the state has been slow to implement broad-based policies, although the Legislature has recently "stepped up to the plate" by passing keg laws and lowering the blood-alcohol content level to .08.
Alcohol abuse rates have gotten "just a little bit better in the last four years" thanks to recent action around the issue, she said. The Department of Health soon will begin a new project addressing substance abuse issues on a county-by-county level throughout the state, she added.
Nationally 7.27 percent of people needed but did not receive treatment for alcohol use in the past year. In Wyoming the rate was 9.16 percent, with a high of 13.73 in the south-central area.
The report presents estimates of the prevalence of substance use or mental health problems in sub-state areas during 2002-04 based on the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an annual survey of the civilian, non-institutionalized population aged 12 or older. It was released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which is part of the Health and Human Services Department.
The survey collected information from about 204,000 respondents. In Wyoming the sample size was 2,649 people.
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