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'Plunge' event deals with the problems facing youth and alcohol

Like it or not, Wisconsinites are known for loving beer about as much as their passion for cheese. Some studies, though, are showing that this alcohol-enamored mentality isn’t exclusive to the Dairy State’s adults. As a result, some groups are organizing efforts to curb underage drinking among Wisconsin’s youth.

One such event-called “The Plunge”-was held Oct. 30 in Barron County. The Plunge was an all-day immersion course in today’s underage drinking culture, in addition to being a forum for devising ways to counteract the trend. Discussion on the topic began at the Barron Ice Arena-a place where kids congregate-and continued throughout the day via a charter bus tour of the county. The Barron County Safe and Stable Families Coalition and Marshfield Clinic sponsored the event.

Opening the day’s session, Bradley Bekkum of Marshfield Clinic said that the purpose of The Plunge was to help people network and inspire action for addressing the problem of underage alcohol consumption. To that end, the program included a wide assortment of studies emphasizing alcohol’s impact on youth, including statistics that showed a high percentage of kids ages 12-20 in Wisconsin and other Midwest states consuming alcohol within a 30-day period. Children from other areas, such as the coasts, reported lower youth drinking rates.

In an attempt to bring the issue into the forefront of people’s minds, Bekkum suggested that the public might not be fully aware of the underage drinking problem because the childhood experience has changed drastically in the past 5-20 years.

A video entitled “This Place” was shown at The Plunge, which described the contemporary drinking scene for American youth. It characterized alcohol as having an increased level of accessibility today, whether through parents providing alcohol to kids, ubiquitous beer advertisements, the expansion of alcohol sales at convenience stores and community festivals or even students bringing intoxicating drinks to school.

The video presentation argued that children are drawn to today’s many sweet-flavored alcoholic beverages, and some kids begin drinking these types of concoctions as young as age 9.

Changes in technology have also altered how underage drinking parties are organized, said Sarah Turner and Lyndsey Kurtz of the Barron County Boys and Girls Clubs. Social networking Web sites, such as MySpace and Facebook, often act as party planning tools that lie outside of adults’ spheres of influence. Using cell phones to send text message alerts about upcoming parties are another silent way kids can coordinate a clandestine drinking venue. They then commonly upload pictures from the party onto these social networking Web sites.

Local law enforcement agencies have also expressed concern about underage drinking habits. Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald, a former investigator for the City of Rice Lake, said that Rice Lake has been “big” on compliance checks for the past 6 years or more, and the county is pursuing grants to be able to expand similar “party patrol” efforts countywide.

Cracking down on beer parties and the like also battles against other drug abuse, he said.

“What’s going to come next after alcohol? What is the next drug?” Fitzgerald asked rhetorically. “I mean, it starts with cigarettes and alcohol. Then they need to get a different kind of a high, so they go to marijuana. Then marijuana is not enough for their high, so what do they go to next? Those are the things we need to think about.”

Parental involvement is an important way to reduce children’s risky behavior with alcohol, the sheriff said.

“Stay involved in your child’s life. Be nosey. I mean, that’s important,” Fitzgerald said. “Parents think that ‘I can’t go into my kid’s room’ or ‘I can’t look at their cell phone’ or ‘I don’t want to read their mail.’ You know what? Be nosey. Check their room. Call and confirm where they are. Show them alternatives to drinking.”

Rep. Mary Hubler also spoke about the dangers of underage drinking at The Plunge. Hubler cited statistics that show Wisconsin residents topping the charts for numbers of binge drinkers, percentage of drinkers, total drunken drivers and per person brandy consumption.

“We have three times the number of taverns that the rest of the country has, and alcohol and drinking is just part of our identity, a part of our culture in Wisconsin,” Hubler said. “But let me tell you this: My friends in the Tavern League are committed to eliminating underage drinking … they don’t want underage drinking in their establishments, and they’re willing to work on this effort.”

Hubler said that Wisconsin’s “drinking epidemic” is costly for non-drinkers as well. Each year, $2.7 billion is spent on alcohol-related expenses (police, courts, incarceration, etc.), according to figures the Legislative Fiscal Bureau has published. Half of Wisconsin’s prison population is behind bars due to alcohol-related offenses, Hubler added.

Part of the solution for drying up underage drinking in the state could lie with new legislation, but Hubler said it will be a tough battle because parents can currently provide alcohol to their own children and some adults will resist changes to state law.

“I think it’s going to be next to impossible to change this parents giving alcohol to their own children because they say, ‘It’s my kid … I’m the parent. Don’t tell me, government, what I’m going to do with my children.'”

source:  Barron News Shield

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