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A Sea Change in Social Norms on the Island of Enchantment—Puerto Rico

License plates for Puerto Rico call it la isla del encanto—the island of enchantment.  But a new breed of community activists, eager to change unhealthy social norms such as underage drinking, is challenged and motivated by another familiar label:  Rum Capital of the World.

The legal drinking age in this unincorporated U.S. territory’s is 18. Alcohol use by younger individuals, however, is commonplace and is tolerated and accepted by many adults.  Adolescents readily buy alcohol from convenience stores, often attached to gas stations, where they have easy access to beer, wine, and distilled liquor.  For example, alcohol-laced fruit juice drinks in inexpensive, single-serving containers with a plastic straw attached are easily available.  Merchants rarely card young alcohol purchasers, and law enforcement has too many other problems to contend with and too few resources to intervene.

But community-based organizations participating in Puerto Rico’s Strategic Prevention Framework State Incentive Grant (SPF-SIG) coalition are working to change the island’s underage alcohol use story. On May 3, 2012, Hogares Teresa Toda, a shelter for abused and neglected young girls, hosted the first underage drinking prevention Town Hall Meeting ever convened in its local community. More than 60 community leaders representing multiple sectors of society—such as education, health, parents, youth, police, justice, business, the community, and the government—gathered together for Foro Comunitario de Canóvanas, a community forum.  The audience was confronted with an alarming picture of adolescent alcohol use:  Young people in Puerto Rico begin drinking early, and they drink more than their peers in most U.S. populations.  According to a local needs assessment, more high school girls (62 percent) than boys (59 percent) report current alcohol use, while middle school students (grades 7 to 9) report higher rates of binge drinking.  Among these younger students, 68 percent of males admitted to drinking five or more drinks on a single occasion, as did 54 percent of females.

The Town Hall Meeting represents a paradigm shift in local attitudes about prevention.  According to Carlos Torrado,  a member of the coordination team, “It’s an uphill battle to reduce underage drinking, but the concern in our community is there.  Given that alcohol use is culturally acceptable and part of our daily lives and economy, it was an important accomplishment to get leaders not just involved but also willing to join forces to make a difference.”  

Torrado stressed that the greatest value of the Town Hall Meeting was to “jump-start” a structured process of change. As Torrado noted, “Structure also is something our island culture needs.” The event’s first outcome was the formation of a local advisory board to identify which findings from the needs assessment to tackle first and which evidence-based strategies most likely would yield results.  The newly formed SPF-SIG advisory board has set three immediate goals for itself:  

  • Reduce underage alcohol consumption and progression;
  • Fortify and expand the burgeoning prevention infrastructure in the community; and
  • Reduce the consequences related to underage alcohol consumption. 

Torrado believes that underage drinking prevention will benefit both the island and its citizens. “Family is an important factor,” he says. “Preventing underage drinking will certainly impact family life, hopefully helping them become stronger and healthier.” In true island spirit, the Town Hall Meeting invitation flyer offers this message, “Llénate de amor, no de alcohol” (“Fill yourself with love, not with alcohol”).


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