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Consumption begins early for underage drinkers, new study shows

SCSU nursing students Lauren Windschitl, left, and Allison Ackers show off the chart they helped put together on the findings from a study conducted this fall at Ridgewater College. Tribune photo by Anne Polta

WILLMAR -- Underage drinkers often start consuming alcohol by the time they're in their mid-teens, and they're most likely to drink when they're with their friends, a new survey has found.

The findings suggest that prevention activities should start early, said the St. Cloud State University nursing students who conducted the survey at Ridgewater College in Willmar.

"These should be implemented before high school during the pre-teen age," said Chelsea Das.

The survey results were presented Wednesday at a gathering of Kandiyohi County Public Health staff and community professionals who work with youths.

The nine SCSU students who carried out the study have been gaining hands-on experience one day a week in Kandiyohi County, working with local public health nurses during fall semester for a course in community health. Their research on underage drinking was a combined project for their community health course and a research class.

The 16-question survey was conducted this fall among 205 students enrolled in general education classes at Ridgewater College. The study respondents were asked about their drinking-related behavior while they were in high school -- how young they were when they first drank alcohol, whom they drank with and where they obtained alcohol.

The responses confirmed that young people are drinking, even though it's not legal to do so until age 21, said Kayla Beckers.

"We found through the research that underage drinking is a problem here in Kandiyohi County," she said.

More than 80 percent reported drinking before they turned 21. The average age at which the males had their first drink was 15 to 16. For females, it was slightly younger, age 13 to 14.

The majority of the respondents said they were with friends when they had their first drink. The next most common setting was with a parent or guardian.

The SCSU students said they didn't expect to see so many survey participants reporting that they had started drinking by their mid-teens.

"That was the biggest surprise to me," said Brian Jacobs.

Another surprise finding: the age at which many of the girls began drinking. The reasons aren't clear, but the students suggested some of these girls might have been dating older men and obtained alcohol from them.

Underage girls also were more likely to get alcohol at a bar or restaurant, the survey found.

A similar trend has been seen when underage female volunteers are used for liquor compliance checks in Kandiyohi County, said Dan Hartog, Kandiyohi County Sheriff.

"It seems like they get served more often than an underage male," he said.

The SCSU nursing students found that risk-taking behavior such as using fake IDs, stealing alcohol or obtaining alcohol from strangers was not common.

The study had several limitations. First, the sample size was small, so it's not clear if the findings are statistically significant. It also relied on self-reporting about past underage drinking behavior.

The Minnesota Student Survey, however, a large-scale study conducted every three years among thousands of school-aged youths in Minnesota, has reported similar findings about alcohol use.

The SCSU students offered several recommendations based on the results of their survey. First, prevention should start early.

"I think the research definitely showed that waiting until high school is too late," said Cassandra Jonak.

Because young people often drink with their friends, communities should work with them to develop activities that provide an alternative, the SCSU students said.

They also urged education for parents to help them communicate and be good role models. "It's extremely important that the family is incorporated in interventions," Das said.

A community effort involving school districts, law enforcement, organizations that work with youths, and the media also is needed to cut down on the incidence of underage drinking, the students said.

The survey results are useful information for Kandiyohi County, which received a federal Drug-Free Communities grant in August and will be planning several initiatives around underage alcohol use, said Ann Stehn, director of Kandiyohi County Public Health.

"We'll be launching a number of things," she said. "The more information we have and the more work we can look at is all very helpful."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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