Sometimes to know if prevention works you have to take the long view. That’s what Rodney Wambeam learned recently when he decided to look at 20 years worth of data on underage drinking in Wyoming. By going back to the time before the State began serious evidence-based prevention efforts, he was able to document substantive reductions in the State’s overall rates of youth alcohol use.
Wyoming’s short history of substance abuse prevention began when it received its original State Incentive Grant in 2001, followed by a Strategic Prevention Framework State Incentive Grant (SPF SIG) in 2005. Under these grants, Wyoming established an epidemiology workgroup—a network of people and organizations focused on using data to inform and enhance prevention practice. The workgroup, chaired by Wambeam, immediately set to work determining the extent of the State’s youth and adult alcohol abuse problem. They then set goals for the levels of reductions they wanted to see in these areas.
In 2010, when Wyoming reached the end of its SPF SIG funding period, evaluators gathered data from 2005 through 2009 (the most recent year data was available) to assess the effectiveness of their prevention efforts. But while the data revealed reductions in youth drinking rates, the decrease was not large enough to rule out that the change was due to chance. Also, because national youth drinking rates also went down during this period, evaluators could not say with certainty that Wyoming’s reductions were a result of its SPF SIG prevention efforts, and not just part of a national trend.
But Wambeam did not let it rest. In January 2012, he returned to his analysis—this time including data collected in 2011. He was excited by what he saw: youth past-month use had decreased by 20 percent and youth binge drinking had dropped by 21 percent.
Still, Wambeam wanted to go deeper; he wanted to compare his recent data with data from the years 1991 to 1999—before Wyoming embraced comprehensive, science-based prevention in a dedicated way. Doing so would allow him to construct a “before” and “after” snapshot of evidence-based prevention in the State.
He was surprised by what he found. The numbers showed a steady decline in underage drinking, beginning in 2001 and dropping more precipitously during the SPF SIG years: 2005 to 2010. Before Wyoming began engaging in serious prevention efforts, youth past month alcohol use had hovered around 50 percent and binge drinking at around 40 percent. Today, youth past-month alcohol use is down to 36 percent and past-month binge drinking is down to 24 percent.
Wambeam acknowledges that national rates of underage drinking continue to trend downward, but he argues that Wyoming’s changing rates suggest that something else is going on. “I grew up in Wyoming and have worked as a prevention researcher here for the past 10 years. Wyoming’s culture around alcohol and especially underage drinking has changed. Adults no longer see underage drinking as a rite of passage but a problem with serious consequences. And across the state I have seen communities addressing the problem with a comprehensive set of strategies.”
For Wambeam, the experience of taking a historical look at the data showed that prevention is working in Wyoming. Underage drinking rates are falling through a combination of strategies, including those that affect the culture around drinking. In a population of just 500,000 people, over the relatively short time that evidence-based prevention has been in place, rates of underage drinking are going down substantially. It only took 20 years of data to show it.
For more information, contact Rodney A. Wambeam, Ph.D ., Senior Research Scientist, Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center, University of Wyoming.