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by Abigail Van Buren

Back to School Lessons Include Learning the Dangers of Drugs

DEAR ABBY: I am asking you to please help us alert all Americans about the danger of children becoming involved with drugs. The best preventative is for parents to take the time to consistently talk to their children about drugs, alcohol and tobacco from the time they are old enough to understand. I can think of no better way to get this important message before the public than your column, and that's why I hope you'll print my letter to parents. -- GEN. BARRY MC CAFFREY (RET.), DIRECTOR, OFFICE OF NATIONAL DRUG CONTROL POLICY

DEAR GEN. MC CAFFREY: It is a pleasure to help spread the word. Your vital message is one that all parents should take to heart:

DEAR PARENTS: As your children begin this new school year, take the time to talk to them about the dangers posed by illegal drugs, alcohol and tobacco.

Some questions and answers to get you started discussing these topics with your children:

-- Why should you avoid illegal drugs like cocaine, heroin, marijuana, methamphetamine and LSD? Because your central nervous system is still developing. If you use these drugs, you risk impairing that development and causing permanent brain damage.

Psychoactive drugs affect your brain and impair judgment. Under their influence, you are more likely to endanger your life or a friend's. You will be less able to protect yourself from physical or sexual assault.

These drugs are addictive. You are not in control of how they affect you. You could become dependent on them very quickly. Smoking marijuana is illegal and a possible gateway to more dangerous drugs. A 12-year-old who smokes marijuana is 79 times as likely to have an addictive problem later in life as a non-marijuana-using child.

-- Why should you avoid alcohol (including beer, wine, wine coolers and mixed drinks)? Because alcohol is the second leading cause of preventable death in our nation, claiming more than 100,000 lives a year.

Adolescents are twice as likely to be involved in a fatal, alcohol-related crash as adults.

Half of sexual assault and date-rape cases involve alcohol.

Alcohol-related driving accidents, violence and suicide are the three greatest causes of death among American youth.

Drinking is illegal if you are under 21.

-- Why shouldn't you smoke cigarettes? Because nicotine is the leading cause of preventable death in our nation, claiming more than 400,000 lives a year.

Each day another 3,000 kids will begin smoking. One-third of them will probably have their lives shortened as a result.

Children who smoke cigarettes are 5.9 times more likely to use other illegal drugs. A 1994 study by Columbia University's Center for Alcohol and Substance Abuse found that 83 percent of those who used cocaine identified smoking cigarettes as a gateway behavior.

It is important to speak CONSISTENTLY to your children about these dangerous drugs throughout the year, not just at the beginning of the school year. About one in 10 of our children aged 12 to 17 are now using illegal drugs. They do not understand the associated risks. You can help your children appreciate what's at stake if they smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol or use illegal drugs. If you don't, your child is more likely to risk his or her mental and physical health.