Coalition sets sights on curbing teen drinking

WILLMAR -- More than half of high school-aged teens in Kandiyohi County report using alcohol, and the numbers -- tracked every three years through the Minnesota Student Survey -- have barely budged downward over the past 15 years.

WILLMAR -- More than half of high school-aged teens in Kandiyohi County report using alcohol, and the numbers -- tracked every three years through the Minnesota Student Survey -- have barely budged downward over the past 15 years.

A newly formed countywide coalition hopes to change these statistics by giving parents and communities more help in curbing underage drinking.

"I want us to be a resource to assist parents," said Boyd Beccue, Kandiyohi County attorney. "We don't want to supplant what parents do. They're still the No. 1 key to this whole puzzle. But it's a difficult job to get teens through those years."

The Kandiyohi County Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Coalition was created earlier this year, partly in response to what local agencies were seeing and hearing about the use of alcohol by kids younger than the legal drinking age of 21.

"The statistics support that there's issues. There's needs," said Rick Loseth, grants manager for PACT 4, a regional four-county children's mental health collaborative.


The coalition includes representatives of schools, local law enforcement, corrections, public health, mental health, social services and clergy.

Public-policy measures and tougher enforcement have made significant inroads on youth tobacco use -- but this same trend hasn't occurred with underage drinking.

In the most recent Minnesota Student Survey, from 2007, 64 percent of 12th-grade boys and 67 percent of 12th-grade girls in Kandiyohi County reported having a drink at least once during the past year.

Prevention isn't always an easy message to convey, coalition members said.

Unlike marijuana, alcohol can be legally bought and sold and many people -- adults included -- don't see it as a problem, said Dan Hartog, Kandiyohi County Sheriff.

"They don't consider it a drug," he said.

The use of alcohol also is engrained in American culture. It's part of how people celebrate and part of how many young people mark their rite of passage into adulthood, Beccue said.

But there's a darker side, say members of the coalition.


Drinking and driving, especially among young drivers lacking maturity and experience, can lead to crashes with severe injuries or death.

Risk-taking behavior and aggression often escalate when alcohol is involved, Hartog said.

"That's when the assaults happen. There's the potential to lead to other types of criminal activity," he said.

Binge drinking is especially a growing concern. In the 2007 Minnesota Student Survey, 31 percent of 12th-grade boys in Kandiyohi County and 22 percent of 12th-grade girls reported binge-drinking -- defined as five or more drinks at any one time -- on at least one occasion.

Drinking games have become more intense and often bear little resemblance to what today's parents remember from their own youth, said Ann Stehn, director of Kandiyohi County Public Health.

"How youth are drinking nowadays is different," she said.

In recent years, binge drinking has been implicated in the deaths of at least half a dozen Minnesota college students, she said. "That really is a tragedy for that person and that family."

Even more worrisome is the long-term impact of heavy alcohol use during the teen years.


There's growing evidence to suggest the human brain doesn't mature until the mid-20s, and that teenage alcohol use can affect brain development during late adolescence. Studies also suggest that people who start drinking heavily in their teen years are more likely to have problems in adulthood with chemical dependency.

"It's back to maturity, decision-making and how we think we're going to party," Loseth said. "There's a lot that promotes high consumption. What's the message to a 15-year-old? It's like the more we see it, the more we believe it's OK. It's a very different message now, compared to 10 years ago and even more, 25 years ago."

Coalition members don't believe there's any single strategy that will lead to sweeping change in curbing alcohol abuse -- as well as prescription drug and over-the-counter drug abuse -- among teens. Rather, they hope to tackle it a piece at a time, taking an approach that's coordinated and countywide.

"I think it's education and policy change. That's why these things take the whole community and not just one person," said Renee Brandt, regional prevention coordinator with Project Turnabout.

"I believe it's really a combination," Loseth said. "The solution is the picture but the pieces are part of the overall puzzle."

One message that parents need to hear is that not everyone, in fact, buys a keg for their child's graduation party or allows their underage children to drink under parental supervision, Brandt said.

"Parents don't know that other people think the same way they're thinking," she said.

Indeed, coalition members hope to recruit some parents interested in joining the group.


Members currently volunteer their time. It's a low-budget effort, primarily funded by forfeiture money from the Kandiyohi County attorney's office, but coalition members want to eventually apply for grants and other funds to further their work.

"We want to do what we can to create awareness," Stehn said. "All of those things should hopefully help to support parents in their role."

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