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Calling a Community to Action—Burlington County, New Jersey

Town Hall Meetings to prevent underage drinking serve two critical functions: educating a community about the problem as the basis for action and engaging the community in evidence-based prevention. The Burlington County Coalition for Healthy Communities (BCCHC) has found Town Hall Meetings so effective in achieving these purposes that the coalition will now be holding these events annually. According to Joe Conlin, Drug Free Communities Coalition Coordinator for the county, “Our Town Hall Meetings give people an opportunity to see what’s going on in their community. People don’t just hear about the problems at these events, but what they can do about them.”

BCCHC, administered by the larger nonprofit agency Prevention Plus of Burlington County, focused the 2010 and 2012 Town Hall Meetings on the role of parents in preventing underage drinking, because data showed that most youth obtained alcohol from their own home or from the homes of friends.  Parents were urged to monitor youth access to and possible use of alcohol by taking such proactive steps as, “Don’t keep a large amount of alcohol in the house. Know where your kids are. Look on their Facebook accounts and their friends’ accounts, and most important of all, sit down and talk with your kids about it.” This action-oriented approach appears to be producing results. Every 2 years, BCCHC uses funding from a Drug-Free Community grant to survey local middle and high school youth about alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and other drug use. According to just-released survey results for middle school, only 2 percent of students reported that they had used alcohol in the past 30 days—down from 6 percent in 2011. In addition, over the same time period, the students’ perception that their parents and peers would disapprove of their use of alcohol increased.

For 2013, BCCHC focused its Town Hall Meeting on alcohol and other drug use by youth. BCCHC scheduled the event for mid-day, rather than evening, to attract a new audience to educate. Another change was that the event was at Burlington County College, which is centrally located in the county. The college’s Human Services Department is a valued partner in prevention. Not only did the department provide a large meeting space, but its Sober Activities Club was active in cohosting the event. This club has already made a notable achievement in having energy drinks removed from campus vending machines to help prevent students from combining energy drinks and alcohol.

At the 2013 event, BCCHC provided information on “Parents who host …,” which deals with social host liability laws. Another topic was keg registration. Riverside Township was the first in Burlington County to impose keg registration. However, the state alcohol beverage control board overturned the ordinance, citing potential legal issues that could arise when communities in the same state have different laws and penalties. BCCHC’s intent is that its Town Hall Meeting would encourage community members to join with police in advocating for a statewide law. A bill was introduced in the New Jersey Senate in 2012, but it has not advanced beyond committee review.

Conlin views the opportunity to bring the community together around solutions to underage drinking as the greatest value of Town Hall Meetings. “These events,” he stated, “get people talking and involved in our coalition: the more members, the more likelihood of change.”

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