Teen drinking is top concern at graduation season

By Jason Hawk - jhawk@civitasmedia.com

Close your eyes and imagine America’s most-abused drug.

Did you picture heroin? Marijuana? Cocaine? OxyContin? Meth? Ecstacy? Did you envision a mysterious powder, a syringe, or a pill?

The truth is that alcohol still tops the list by far, killing nearly 88,000 people each year in the United States. That’s 62,000 men and 26,000 women.

With graduation season on the horizon, an Amherst forum on underage drinking will be held from 6-8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 3 at the Steele High School cafetorium.

The goal is to make sure Amherst residents — especially parents — know our teens are drinking and that it’s very much a problem, said police Lt. Mark Cawthon.

“We want to send a message that if you’re a parent and you want to host a party, and you’re providing a place for these kids to drink, it’s a problem for us,” he said. “I’ve been to parties as an officer where there is alcohol. There’s family there. If you have someone secure a keg, they need to be cognizant not to give kids access to that.”

The event is sponsored by Communities That Care of Lorain County as part of a federal grant.

CTC coordinator Tim Williams cited a 2014 survey by his agency, which found teens are drinking on the weekends at friends’ homes. “We know they get it from parents, they get it from older siblings,” he said.

CTC has also worked for years with Amherst police on compliance checks at area businesses. Undercover teens are sent in to try to buy alcohol and all too often there’s a store in town where the ploy works.

Williams said he understands those who need to hear the underage drinking the most are those least likely to attend a community forum.

The idea is to talk to “a mass that we feel like we can engage in some kind of action,” he said, “empowering them to take the message to the streets.”

While April is National Alcohol Awareness Month, the big targets are graduation parties this June.

Elaine Georgas of the Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services Board of Lorain County said parents who host such parties stand to lose the most. They’ve forgotten how dangerous alcohol can be for teens because drinking has become a normal part of American culture.

Here are some staggering figures compiled in 2014 by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism:

• 34.7 percent of 15-year-olds say they’ve had at least one drink in their lives.

• About 22.8 percent of Americans ages 12 to 20 reported drinking alcohol in the past month.

• About 13.8 percent in the 12-to-20 age bracket were binge drinkers.

• 59.8 percent of full-time college students ages 18–22 drank alcohol in the past month.

• In 2010, alcohol misuse problems cost the U.S. $249.0 billion.

Steele News Live, run by teens in Mark Lowrie’s television production class at Amherst’s high school, recently surveyed 395 students about alcohol use.

The informal survey revealed 77 percent have consumed alcohol and 45 percent say they’ve been intoxicated.

Williams said small suburban communities often have denial issues about how prevalent alcohol and other drugs are.

“We have many communities that say, ‘We don’t have a problem.’ Then they have a death and they realize they have a problem,” he said. “We don’t say, ‘I told you so,’ we just try to help.”

The May 3 public forum is hosted in collaboration with Amherst police, the Amherst Community Task Force, the Amherst Schools, and Steele News Live.

A free pizza dinner will be served at 5:30 p.m.

Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.

By Jason Hawk