University program helps fight underage drinking

Cati Vanden Breul

A program developed by University researchers is being used to battle underage drinking in cities across the country.

The program focuses on combating illegal activities happening in the community, rather than educating students about the risks of underage alcohol use, said Traci Toomey, project co-investigator and professor of epidemiology at the University.

“The focus of the program is really on changing policies for preventing underage kids to get access to alcohol – reduced access is the bottom line,” Toomey said.

She said that while educating children is a good start, changing the community environment is also important.

“Kids in school hear the ‘just say no’ message, and then they go outside and see many conflicting messages about alcohol,” Toomey said.

Last week, the Boston Globe reported that authorities in Chelsea, Mass., are using the University’s program to combat underage drinking after a study showed that it is a significant problem in the community. In the program, teenagers help police catch adults who offer to purchase them alcohol when they stand outside of liquor stores.

Toomey called this technique “shoulder-tapping” and said that while it isn’t specifically outlined in the program, it is one way communities can choose to address the issue of underage alcohol consumption.

Before developing the model, researchers conducted a 2 1/2-year study of communities in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The communities were divided into control and intervention groups.

At the end of the study, the intervention communities showed decreases in underage alcohol use and alcohol-related problems such as drunk driving, Toomey said.

Community businesses were also less likely to sell alcohol to those who looked young without asking for identification, she said.

Toomey has given program trainings in cities all over the country, including Boston, Dallas, Portland, Ore., and Baltimore.

She said 450 people in 44 states have expressed interest in the program so far.

The Minnesota Join Together Coalition, an organization of youth and adults working to fight underage drinking through policy change, is using a similar model in Minnesota, said project director Jeff Nachbar.

According to the 2004 Student Health Assessment Survey conducted by Boynton Health Service in the spring, 60 percent of University students age 20 and younger reported using alcohol.

Nachbar said underage drinkers get their alcohol mostly from friends and family who are older than 21.

“To blame people under the age of 21 for drinking is like blaming your dog for having fleas,” he said.

The coalition works with law enforcement to target house parties known for providing alcohol to minors. Coalition members also talk to the hosts about having what Nachbar called “responsible” parties.

Nachbar said several positive legislative changes have happened since the coalition was formed in the mid-1990s.

He said the State Legislature has passed bills calling for keg registration and tougher penalties for adults who provide alcohol to underage people.

In keg registration, liquor stores mark kegs with identification numbers and keep the buyer’s driver’s license number on record for up to one year. If police confiscate the keg at a party with underage drinkers, they can use the identification number to find the buyer.

Natalie Lupo, an officer in the Student Network for Abuse Prevention, a University student group, said educating students about alcohol abuse works better than enforcing the types of tougher penalties laid down by some parts of the University program.

“Scare tactics don’t work with people this age,” Lupo said.

But Lupo said she agreed making alcohol harder to get will send a positive message. She said it’s up to the community to provide alternative activities such as the Gophers After Dark program for underage students.