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Photo of Rick ZimmermanLiving By Chance

by Karla Dooley

Sex. Drugs. Alcohol.

These topics make their way into the morning paper on, seemingly, a daily basis. And often, the focus is on young people. Rick Zimmerman, an associate professor in the UK Department of Communication, has spent most of his career trying to figure out why adolescents and college students take these various risks, and to find ways to prevent these choices.

In a random sample survey of 918 University of Kentucky undergraduates during fall 1998, Zimmerman found that students are involved in a number of risk-taking behaviors. And although he's not surprised at the students' responses, he suspects many Kentuckians would be.

Of those who had engaged in sexual intercourse, 35 percent had five or more lifetime partners, and 46 percent drank alcohol in the context of a sexual experience. Only 30 percent reported using a condom the last time they had sex. And 10 percent said they had either been pregnant or had gotten a partner pregnant.

As for alcohol, tobacco and drugs, 39 percent said that they drank in order to become intoxicated "often or always," and 45 percent smoked cigarettes in the past month. About one fourth of the sample smoked marijuana during the past month.

The UK study provides strong data to suggest that binge drinking is a significant issue among students, regular marijuana use is a problem for a significant minority of them, and unprotected sex is prevalent among those who are sexually active. "All of this is fairly consistent with other published data about college students," Zimmerman says.

For the past several years, the Kentucky Department of Health Services has chosen Zimmerman to head up an evaluation of the state's HIV prevention programs. He is also involved with four other studies that focus on HIV prevention and interventions on risk-taking, marijuana and sexual decisions among young people. Three of these studies are funded by the National Institutes of Health.

In a project Zimmerman just finished for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, he found that a well-targeted school-based curriculum could delay the initiation of sexual activity among adolescents. "This curriculum is focused on building assertiveness, and refusal and negotiation skills," Zimmerman says. Now, he's building on that research to see how similar results could be achieved among other groups, including youth in Appalachia.

"There is an exciting and oftentimes frightening period of three to five years in young people's lives when they can go cruising along to disaster," Zimmerman says. "We're trying to understand both the issues that are related to their risk-taking and what kinds of interventions can be successfully implemented to reduce their behaviors."

In addition to school curricula, other intervention methods he'll test could include mass media campaigns and "small media," such as videotapes or comic books.

Zimmerman says there are many reasons why young people take various health risks. "Some teenagers, for example, are sensation seekers—they love to take risks. And peer pressure is clearly at work, especially the pressure for young men to become sexually active," he says. The growing body of research in this area also shows that a lack of attachment to the immediate family or to the school community is a predictor for risk-taking.

As his work has progressed, Zimmerman says he has become more passionate about finding ways to keep young people from becoming involved in unsafe behaviors. He is a member of the Fayette County Teen Pregnancy Task Force and has served on the board of directors for the Lexington Chapter of Planned Parenthood.

Zimmerman came to UK in 1994, after spending the first 11 years of his career in the Department of Sociology at the University of Miami. He says he felt it was time to move his two children, now 15 and 11 years old, "out of the crime and drug capital of the world."

"A worry I had in coming to Kentucky," he says half-seriously, "was that there wouldn't be enough risky behavior here to study. It turns out that, unfortunately, there's plenty of risk-taking going on everywhere."