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Underage Drinking Prevention: What’s Youth Got To Do With It?


Be on the lookout for e-mail invitations in late January! E-mail invitations on behalf of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) will be sent to community-based organizations like yours soon. The November 2013 Town Hall Meeting e-alert has tips to help you plan.

The December 2013 Town Hall Meeting e-alert asked what underage drinking has to do with other concerns in your community. Some of the topics discussed may be uppermost in the minds of adults, but might not be what most teenagers are worried about. So, where does preventing underage drinking fit into the interests and priorities of tomorrow’s adults? Obviously, youth are the target for much of what you are doing on this issue, but some of us may not yet appreciate the crucial role many children and teens are already playing. In planning for your 2014 Town Hall Meetings, you may want to remind adults and young people alike of the many ways in which youth can help advance prevention goals and objectives.

More and more community Town Hall Meetings on underage drinking prevention are being planned, and often conducted, by teens. Just over three quarters (75.3 percent) of groups like yours who completed SAMHSA’s 2012 Town Hall Meetings Organizer Survey reported that youth helped plan their events that year. If yours is among the shrinking minority still lacking teen participation in your Town Hall Meetings and other underage drinking prevention activities, 2014 is the time to begin harnessing their ideas and energy and listening to what they have to say.

In spite of long-held myths that “everybody’s doing it,” many adolescents recognize that postponing alcohol use until they are of legal age to drink, at 21, improves their chances for success at whatever is important to them. Youth who refrain from drinking during these critical growth years—their brains are still developing and their bodies are maturing—do better academically, athletically, socially, and in every other way than their peers who begin drinking early. Many of today’s savvy teens recognize that succumbing to peer pressure puts them at risk for numerous problems, including legal and medical problems, that could interfere with their chosen goals in life.

Some young people want to begin now to make a difference in their communities’ current and future quality of life. They are learning how to make thoughtful and responsible decisions and how to voice their expectations for environmental conditions that can shape the lives they will have. In countless communities, people not yet old enough to purchase alcohol are Town Hall Meeting panelists, making their own compelling case for effective prevention measures. Here is a sampling of how young people are making sure that prevention works where they live:

  • As portrayed in the new SAMHSA-supported underage drinking prevention video Count Me In...On the Fight Against Underage Drinking, members of California’s Friday Night Live Partnerships, have taken actions in their communities to change social norms, to promote enactment of social host laws, and to work with merchants to reduce youth access to alcohol;
  • In Kamiah, Idaho, young people participating in annual Reality Party Town Hall Meetings ask adults to make drinking seem less cool and to help them resist peer pressure to drink;
  • In Durham, North Carolina, the youth group Bands Against Destructive Decisions is an important component of the local prevention coalition, producing music videos circulated among youth and public service announcements shown in movie theaters;
  • In one Florida community, college students participated in an underage drinking prevention Town Hall Meeting several miles away via Skype connections;
  • In the island nation of Guam, young Town Hall Meeting advocates succeeded in getting this U.S. territory’s legislature to take up a proposal to increase the minimum legal drinking age from 18 to 21, eventually voted into law; and
  • In a town in rural Washington with a population of only 5,000, high school students are credited for getting almost 600 people to attend their SAMHSA-sponsored Town Hall Meeting.

Today’s youth are often our best and most effective communicators for talking to other underage youth about alcohol and why and how they should avoid it. The voices of youth may be more credible and persuasive among their peers than ours. For example, their ease and skills with social media and electronic technologies are increasingly essential in reaching teen audiences. As suggested by the inclusive wording of SAMHSA’s recommended 2014 Town Hall Meetings theme, Our Town. Our Health. Our Future., each one of us, young and old, has an important role in promoting healthy lives and productive futures for everyone.  

In the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I, Anna sang, “It's a very ancient saying, but a true and honest thought, that if you become a teacher, by your pupils you'll be taught.” The inclusion of youth in your planning creates a vision of underage students as well as adult pupils (such as parents, caregivers, and community advocates and policymakers) learning from a new generation of young teachers and growing together. Including young people in your 2014 Town Hall Meetings plan now can result in a multigenerational “graduating class” prepared to make your town a better place, their health more resilient, and everyone’s future more promising.