Three ethical principles guide how we do research with people who participate in research studies at the Alcohol Research Center.
1. Anyone who considers participating in a research study must first make an informed decision. In order to make an informed decision, it is important to know why we are doing the study, what the risks and benefits of being in the study are, and realize that participation is completely voluntary.
2. Every research study must minimize risks to the volunteer. This includes maintaining the confidentiality of ALL who participate in the study.
3. Our investigators attempt, as best they can, to design the study so that what is learned will benefit people of different ethnic backgrounds, regardless of whether they are rich or poor.
At the Alcohol Research Center, Dr. Ehlers and Dr. Gilder are currently doing studies with volunteers. They work with Scripps Committees that review research studies to ensure that our studies meet these three principles. An important mission of the Alcohol Research Center is to help determine the biological and psychological causes of alcoholism in different ethnic groups. We believe that this strategy gives us a shot at designing more effective prevention and treatment programs in the future for people from minority ethnic groups.
The rates of alcoholism vary among ethnic groups. Asian Americans have the lowest rates, European Americans and Mexican Americans are in the middle, and Native Americans have the highest rates. African Americans start out having low rates as adolescents and young adults but have rates similar to European/Mexican Americans when they reach middle age.
Some of the differences in rates are due to cultural influences. Mexican Americans who were born in Mexico drink less than their US-born children. Some of the differences have to do with biological factors. For instance, Asian Americans tend to have enzymes that break down alcohol at a slower rate than other ethnic groups which results in unpleasant facial flushing, rapid heart rate, nausea, and headaches. As a result, Asian Americans drink less and are much less likely to have problems with alcohol.
In 1998 the total cost to the US from alcoholism was estimated to be $100 billion. This includes the costs of medical treatment of alcoholism itself and the medical problems, lost wages, and lost productivity that are caused by alcoholism. The $100 billion figure does not take into account the physical, psychological, and spiritual pain that alcoholism causes in lives of alcoholics, their families, friends, and co-workers.
More effective prevention and treatment programs should be a public health priority.
Here are some of the ways public policy could make a difference:
Women who drink when they are pregnant are at risk for causing birth defects in their babies (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome). In the womb, babies are especially vulnerable to the toxic effects of alcohol and its breakdown product, acetaldehyde, in the first three months of life. This is the time that important parts of the nervous system, the head, and heart begin forming, so exposing babies to alcohol during this time can lead to abnormalities in these areas and others. Education and treatment programs for women who are pregnant can help prevent these problems.
Delaying drinking in adolescents reduces their chance of developing alcoholism when they get older. Serious drinking often starts during adolescence. About 40% of alcoholics develop their first symptoms between 15 and 19 years old, so there is a huge need for prevention programs that involve not just the adolescents themselves, but also their friends, families and schools.
In several states, alcoholics, who get in trouble with the law, can be sentenced by judges to treatment for their addiction rather than receive jail time. Usually the treatment is supervised by the judge and, if successful, is linked to reduced jail time or probation. Recent studies suggest this can be a successful approach, not only in helping the alcoholic, but also in reducing the costs to the criminal justice system and taxpayers.
In 2004, 40% of all traffic fatalities were alcohol related. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 3 out of 10 people in the US will, at some point, be involved in an alcohol-related crash. Preventing alcoholism before it takes hold in a person's life would lead to major reductions in highway deaths and injuries caused by drunk driving.