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Changing the Culture Reduces Underage Drinking—South Orange County, California

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence—Orange County (NCADD-OC), in partnership with the South Orange County Coalition (SOCC), is using Town Hall Meetings, which are supported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), as part of a multifaceted approach to promote social and legislative changes that can reduce underage drinking problems. According to NCADD-OC Director Gwen Drenick, Town Hall Meetings held in 2010 and 2012 educated parents about their role in prevention, while supporting legislative changes that allow local law enforcement to act against adults who enable underage alcohol use. Town Hall Meetings are helping to change a community culture that has traditionally tolerated underage alcohol use.

The underage drinking environment in South Orange County is a study in contrasts and paradoxes. On the surface, overt signs of problems are at a minimum. In many areas of south Orange County, young people have many alcohol-free social and recreational opportunities and little exposure to outdoor alcohol advertising messages. Past environmental prevention efforts by NCADD-OC, SOCC, and other activists have had some success in limiting outlet density and gaining support for other measures aimed at controlling youth access to alcohol.

However, Ms. Drenick identifies challenges in her community that those in other places might find surprising. She explained, “A large proportion of families living here are financially successful, even affluent. Kids have money and their own credit cards and find plenty of ways to obtain alcohol. A small fine for breaking the law isn’t that much of a deterrent to a lot of people here. The hardest thing to change is a pervasive attitude among parents that sees underage drinking as a harmless rite of passage. As long as their kids aren’t involved in an alcohol-impaired driving tragedy, they look the other way.”

Consequently, NCADD-OC and SOCC have made parent education a cornerstone of their Town Hall Meetings. At these events, parents learn about the dangers of teen alcohol use, the influence of peer pressure and prodrinking messages on youth, and parental actions that promote positive development. Parents are coached on how to communicate with their children about alcohol’s dangers and how to equip youth with refusal skills. They also learn how to evaluate their own behaviors to ensure that alcohol access or permissive attitudes aren’t facilitated from home. Participants hear about evidence-based environmental prevention strategies that build safe and healthy communities.

Students are a vital segment of the Town Hall Meeting audiences, as well. While their parents are being trained, participating teens take part in interactive team-building exercises led by local experts and the nationally recognized National Guard Harm Reduction Team.

The results of this multipronged approach are encouraging. Town Hall Meetings have helped mobilize support for the implementation of social host liability ordinances in four cities and stronger noise ordinances in two cities. (Noise ordinances, which may allow officers to enter residences where underage drinking parties may be in full swing, provide communities with another means to deter underage and excessive drinking.)

In addition, data from the California Healthy Kids Survey show improvements in healthy behaviors and attitudes. The percentage of Orange County 11th-grade students who said they engaged in binge drinking three or more times in the last month has declined from 12 percent in 2009–2011 to 9 percent in 2011–2013. In 2007–2009, only 51 percent of 11th-grade students in these communities saw great harm in bingeing, but the new 2011–2013 results show that 55 percent now recognize the danger. Ms. Drenick states, “I know our work is contributing to these positive changes. Town Hall Meetings have become an integral and effective part of how we act to improve the wellbeing of South Orange County and, especially, its young people.”


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