A national evaluation of a comprehensive federally sponsored initiative shows that the program has galvanized action at the state and local levels to reduce underage drinking, according to Mark Wolfson, Ph.D., of Wake Forest University School of Medicine.
The evaluation is cited in today''s National Academy of Sciences report: "Underage Drinking, a Collective Responsibility," which was released in Washington.
Wolfson, who is heading the national evaluation, said as a result of the Enforcing Underage Drinking Laws program, "many more state agencies are involved, and underage drinking prevention is higher on their agendas."
He said the increased activity has three key focuses: enforcement efforts, public education about underage drinking and increased coordination among local and state agencies.
Wolfson said state agencies are much more involved in promoting enforcement efforts than before the program began. These enforcement efforts are aimed at:
- Retail outlets such as grocery stores, convenience stores, liquor stores and bars to prevent teens from buying alcohol.
- Cracking down on adult social providers of alcohol -- places where teens drink, such as at parties and at fraternities and sororities.
- Efforts aimed at teens themselves.
In addition, law enforcement agencies in communities that received funding "showed relative increases in the median numbers of compliance checks, Cops in Shops operations and arrests of youth for purchases, possession or use of alcohol." In public education, he said the program has stimulated large increases in the number of states sponsoring media campaigns and media advocacy to educate the public about the problem of underage drinking.
He said that prior to the start of the initiative, states’ underage drinking efforts usually lacked coordination. This has changed considerably over the past four years.
Wolfson, associate professor of public health sciences (social sciences and health policy) and director of the Center for Community Research, said the 13-member Wake Forest team documented a dramatic increase in enforcement activities. "Clearly, the Enforcing Underage Drinking Laws program stimulated activity on a broad scale in the area of underage drinking prevention."
"However, these efforts have not yet produced corresponding changes in alcohol use by youth. While small reductions were observed in the number of youths reporting alcohol use, non-violent consequences of alcohol use, perceptions of alcohol use among peers and attempts to purchase alcohol, there were no statistically significant differences between youth in intervention and comparison communities." He cautioned that results were based on only one year of intervention "which may not be adequate to affect alcohol use outcomes. Future reports of the national evaluation will include analysis of two years of funding."
He said that despite a uniform national drinking age of 21, "alcohol use by people under 21 is pervasive. Kids drink in large numbers." He said 20 percent of 8th-graders and 50 percent of 12th-graders report they have consumed alcohol in the past 30 days. Such drinking patterns lead to injuries, unsafe sex, and sexual assaults, in addition to the legal consequences.
Wolfson said the Enforcing Underage Drinking Laws program is the first major federal initiative focused exclusively on youth alcohol use. It is funded by the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Though the current program is continuing, the Office of Juvenile Justice is planning a new phase that would randomly assign communities to either intervention or controls, employing the use of what are seen as best practices.
"The practices identified by experts as ''best'' include conducting regular enforcement actions involving the use of underage decoys who attempt to purchase alcohol, restricting zoning (outlet locations and density), enhancing enforcement of drinking and driving laws and conducting sobriety checkpoints," Wolfson said. "This is an important move to bring a stronger, more science-based approach to this important federal initiative."
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