Summary statement headlines problematic

  • allen K—allen K

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Data can always be reported multiple ways. A recent headline that said 50 percent of local high school seniors have vaped is accurate, but as a summary statement this headline obscures many more important stories.

If we reported on how many adults had ever tried smoking a cigarette (or had tried by the time they had finished high school) we might be alarmed at how many had, but it would not reveal the fact that the vast majority of us do not smoke at all, and that smoking is becoming less and less common.

What’s more, headlines can unintentionally lead to the normalization of a behavior that few of us want to promote. Teens (and indeed all of us) have a desire to fit in with peers, and therefore when teens hear and believe that most of their peers are doing something, they are far more likely to do it themselves. Telling the glass-half-full story becomes an important public health strategy for actually reducing risky behaviors.

It is definitely alarming that the makers of vaping paraphernalia are trying hard to fill the gap that cigarettes once filled (and no — most teens are NOT vaping as a method to quit smoking).

We must regulate to prevent tobacco, alcohol and marijuana companies from targeting our youth. We must make sure that young people don’t see vaping as harmless and cool. And we need headlines that tell the other side of the story: That most local young people are not vaping, not smoking, not drinking; that more and more local young people are making healthy choices; that local youth substance use rates are at historic lows; that drinking and binge drinking rates among Franklin County/North Quabbin 8th graders (a target age for prevention efforts) are for the first time lower than the national average (after starting out 50 percent higher than national rates when we began measuring 15 years ago); that our schools have been leading the way in implementing evidence-based substance use prevention programs (such as the middle school LifeSkills curriculum and routine substance use screenings); and that our region is being held up as a model for the state due to the great and collaborative work that so many schools, towns and agencies are involved in. Those are the stories that I’m proud to tell, and that make a positive impact in our community.

Kat Allen

Coalition coordinator for Partnership for Youth, a program of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments