Understanding alcohol consumption and its correlates among African American youths in public housing: a test of problem behavior theory.

Author:Lombe, Margaret

African American youths are overrepresented in urban public housing developments characterized by violence, poverty, and alternative market activities. Using Jessor and Jessor's problem behavior theory (PBT), the authors examined alcohol use and its correlates in a sample of African American youths from three public housing developments (N = 403). Multiple logistic regression analyses were performed to estimate the relative contributions of demographics, personality, environment, and behavior system variables in predicting past-year alcohol use. Results provide support for PBT. Depressive effects and causes were significant predictors of adolescent alcohol use. Delinquent behavior and affiliation with delinquent peers were also associated with alcohol use. Furthermore, age was related to alcohol use. Implications for practice and future inquiry are suggested.

KEY WORDS: African American youths; alcohol use; disaggregated effects; problem behavior theory; public housing development


African American youths are overrepresented in urban public housing developments characterized by violence, poverty, and alternative market activities. In the past few years, research has begun to focus specifically on this vulnerable population of youths. This research has contributed to our understanding of how various domains relate to African American adolescents' symptoms and behaviors, especially in the context of public housing neighborhoods.

Alcohol use or misuse is a common maladaptive behavior in the United States (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001). Research evidence shows that problems associated with excessive alcohol consumption--for example, liver disease, cardiovascular disease, neurological damage, and psychiatric problems--tend to be exacerbated in youths reporting early initiation (Odgers et al., 2008).

In particular, evidence suggests that alcohol is the most widely used drug by youths (Office of Juvenile .Justice and Delinquency Prevention [OJJDP], 2008). African American youths drink less than other youths on average (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA], 2009). However, results of national surveys reveal that while frequent heavy drinking among white male individuals ages 18 to 29 continued to drop, rates of heavy drinking and alcohol-related problems remained high among African Americans in the same age group (see, for example, SAMHSA, 2009). Consequently, the age-adjusted death rate from alcohol-related diseases for African Americans is 10% greater than it is for the general population (Kochanek, Murphy, Anderson, & Scott, 2004). Furthermore, alcohol use is related to the four leading causes of death among African Americans ages 12 to 20: homicide, unintentional injuries, car accidents, and suicide (National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, 2006). In this group, alcohol consumption has also been linked to depressive symptoms (Grant, 1997). Other consequences of alcohol use or misuse include later adolescent predicaments, inhibiting acquisition of skills necessary for employment, and heightened health risks.

We used Jessor and Jessor's (1977) problem behavior theory to help understand and explicate adolescent alcohol use in a sample of African American youths in public housing. The conceptual structure of the theory consists of three major systems that explain problem behavior: personality, perceived environment, and the behavior system. The theory asserts that each system serves either as instigator for or control against engaging in problem behavior. Proneness to problem behavior is determined by the balance between instigators and controls across the three systems. This study may guide development of interventions with greater potential to prevent the emergence of alcohol abuse and dependence during adolescence and early adulthood. This overview provides a context for understanding the significance of the social ecology in understanding African American adolescents' behavior in urban public housing.


Personality System Variables and Alcohol Use

Personality system variables include sociocognitive variables, such as values, beliefs, and attitudes along with psychological variables like depression (Jessor & Jessor, 1977). Evidence suggests that intention to use alcohol is an important predictor of alcohol use in both youths and adults (Sullivan & Farrell, 1999).Without a doubt, beliefs about social norms for alcohol consumption, weighing the costs and benefits of alcohol use, and prior experiences with alcohol may influence future use.

Furthermore, there is a substantial body of research that links various adolescent psychological factors, including attitude toward delinquency, to substance abuse (for example, Luengo, Carrillo-dela-Pena, Otero, & Romero, 1994). Research evidence suggests that youths exhibiting moral disengagement, including favorable attitudes toward problem behaviors, were more likely to engage in alcohol use compared with youths who did not (Welte, Barnes, Hoffman, & Dintcheff, 1999). However, adolescents with favorable attitudes toward social institutions, such as school, were less likely to abuse alcohol than were those with unfavorable attitudes (Guo, Collins, Hill, & Hawkins, 2000).

Youth substance use, including alcohol use, is also associated with psychological variables--notably depression (Repetto, Zimmerman, & Caldwell, 2004; Schwinn, Schinke, & Trent, 2010). These findings are suggestive; youths in high-risk impoverished environments may resort to using alcohol as a way to cope with depressive symptoms. However, the question of whether depression leads to or is a consequence of alcohol use remains unresolved.

Environment System Variables and Alcohol Use

During adolescence, peers greatly influence and form an important behavioral reference for an adolescent (Brown & Klute, 2006). Research has documented similarities in levels of risk behavior among adolescents within the same peer group (see Wright & Fitzpatrick, 2004). In fact, one of the most consistent and strongest predictors of early initiation of alcohol use is exposure to others who use substances. Undoubtedly, a peer environment perceived to be accepting of substance use or misuse may be inviting to an adolescent struggling to cope with the stressors associated with living in urban public housing. Likewise, peer disagreement with and discouragement from drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes and marijuana may provide an effective shield against initiating such behaviors. This relationship, however, has not been fully explored among African American adolescents in public housing, but it should be further explored.

Emotional support from parents has also been associated with less drinking in racially diverse samples of adolescents (Barnes, Reifman, Farrell, & Dintcheff, 2000). Among African American youths, evidence indicates that perceived emotional support from fathers was associated with less self-reported alcohol use (Caldwell, Sellers, Bernat, & Zimmerman, 2004); mother's emotional support and encouragement was inversely related to a youth's alcohol use or misuse. At present, the role of parents in the prevention of substance use and other risk behaviors among African American adolescents is unclear. Some studies have reported positive influences; others have found negative influences on youth risk behaviors, suggesting the need for continuing examination of the influences of both paternal and maternal factors on youths' risk behaviors.

Behavior System Variables and Alcohol Use

Convergent findings across studies of delinquent youths indicate significant overlap between delinquent behaviors and substance use and misuse (Thompson, Riggs, Mukilich, & Crowley, 1996). Recent research (see, for example, Vaughn, Freedenthal, Jenson, & Howard, 2007) has shown that substance use severity and serious delinquency go hand in hand, clustering together along a severity-based gradient. Essentially, this literature indicates that youths' substance use is positively related to their criminal histories. Research also points to an association between alcohol use and misuse with problem behavior such as school suspensions, vandalism, and sexual assault. Moreover, research has linked use and misuse of one substance to use and misuse of another; for example, of all alcohol-consuming youths ages 12 to 17, 32% used marijuana (OJJDP, 2008). In contrast, among non-alcohol-drinking youths, only 2% reported marijuana use. Other scholars have found an association between cigarette smoking and increased alcohol consumption (Harrison, Desai, & McKee, 2008). Similar results have been reported by others (see Young...

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