Town meeting tackles underage drinking

The numbers are always sobering.

At a town hall meeting Tuesday night, community members gathered with local agencies and law enforcement to discuss underage drinking.

The facts and figures presented are always enough to consider, but the meeting focused more on the insight offered from a panel of local teens and adults who have seen the effects of the worst that can happen when minors abuse alcohol.

Teens who begin drinking before age 16 are four times as likely to develop alcohol dependency, said Marry Ellen de la Peña of Kitsap County Prevention Services.

“If that’s delayed five years, that (risk) is cut in half,” de la Peña said.

She also offered statistics gathered specifically from Kitsap teens who had been surveyed. 21 percent of Kitsap 10th-graders surveyed had driven drunk themselves or rode with a drunk driver, a fact that caused audible gasps from some in the audience. In 2005, 17 people between the ages of 16 and 21 were issued DUIs in Kitsap County and four of 19 alcohol-related traffic fatalities were in that age bracket.

Patrick Guthrie, a panel member and a senior at North Mason High School, painted a picture of why kids start to drink.

“More than a social norm, it’s kind of a social expectation,” Guthrie said. “You see it in commercials. People wonder what’s wrong with you if you don’t drink.”

Guthrie and Central Kitsap High School senior Bo Carlton agreed hard liquors are the choice of boys, who feel a need to prove their masculinity through drinking, while Bremerton High School senior Tessie Goheen said girls tend more toward so-called “alco-pops” marketed toward young females.

Guthrie said alcohol is not at all difficult to come by for teens.

“If you have a circle of friends, it’s that six degrees thing ... you can find somebody who knows somebody to get alcohol,” he said.

Alcohol can also impact violent behavior among teens, Guthrie said.

“Drinking has an effect (on violence) but it’s not the root cause,” he said. “It allows people to let their emotions get the best of them. I’ve seen some fights start over some pretty stupid stuff.”

Parents who provide alcohol in a “safe” setting are not doing the right thing, panel members urged.

“I think it’s important parents don’t say ‘it’s OK as long as you drink here, because it’s safe,’ because it’s not safe,” Goheen said. “It starts bad habits. Why not just stop it before it starts?”

“Being the ‘cool’ parent only goes so far,” Carlton said. “It really does more harm than good.”

Adult panelist Kitsap County Sheriff’s Sgt. Mike Merrill could attest to that.

“I’ve lost track of the number of fatalities I’ve seen,” Merrill said. “But I can remember three of them in particular where kids were somewhere that was supposedly supervised, with everyone’s keys taken.”

“I listened to the (teen) panel and I think they identified something key,” said Kitsap County Sheriff Steve Boyer following the forum. Boyer noted panelists’ mention that teens are educated often on health effects but are often oblivious of the criminal penalties involved with minor in possession and DUI offenses.

“A license is so important to kids and I know they don’t want to lose it and they don’t realize they will,” Boyer said.

The meeting concluded with tips for parents to curb underage drinking including limiting their own alcohol use as children and teens are always watching, enforcing curfews and refusing to purchase alcohol for minors.

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