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Town Hall Meetings Help Draw the Line Between Youth and Alcohol—Washington State

According to Washington State’s Healthy Youth Survey, the state has made tremendous progress in reducing underage drinking over the past several years. In Washington, both current and binge drinking by 8th- and 12th-grade students have declined significantly since 2004, as illustrated in the table below.

Underage Drinking, 2004–2012, Washington State






  8th grade, current use




  8th grade, binge drinking




  12th grade, current use




  12th grade, binge drinking




“We are encouraged by this progress,” says Washington’s National Prevention Network member, Michael Langer. “Town Hall Meetings are one of several forces contributing to these positive trends. Town Halls help Washington’s community-based organizations (CBOs) fulfill their never-ending mandate to raise awareness about underage drinking as a serious public health issue, while giving them tools to plan, organize, and mobilize to implement evidence-based policies to reduce youth access to alcohol.”

Washington’s strong participation in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Town Hall Meeting initiative has its roots in a National Meeting of the States on Underage Drinking convened by SAMHSA in 2005. A team of Washington State officials returned from the meeting determined to limit youth access to alcohol, prevent and reduce underage drinking, and cut the burden teen drinking places on Washington’s resources. They created the Washington State Coalition to Reduce Underage Drinking (RUaD) that same year, which was one of the first tangible outcomes among the national meeting’s participants. The coalition has actively promoted the state’s underage drinking prevention agenda and supported federal adolescent alcohol prevention goals ever since.

SAMHSA announced its underage drinking prevention Town Hall Meeting initiativeIn 2006, SAMHSA announced its underage drinking prevention Town Hall Meeting initiative—another outcome of the national meeting of the states. These events quickly became an important fixture in RUaD’s efforts. Town Halls proved popular and effective for the scores of substance abuse prevention coalitions that receive support from the state’s allocation of federal block grant funding. In 2012, for example, 75 Washington CBOs registered to hold events. As in 2006, 2008, and 2010, when SAMHSA also offered Town Hall Meeting support, CBOs across the state took their cues in planning their 2012 events from RUaD and its underage drinking prevention priorities. RUaD, through its www.StartTalkingNow.org website, provided Town Hall Meeting materials to supplement what CBOs obtained from the 2012 Town Hall Meeting pages at www.stopalcoholabuse.gov. On www.StartTalkingNow.org, CBOs found templates for event flyers, press packets, public service announcements, and other materials they could localize. CBOs could also obtain 1-page factsheets with underage drinking statistics for their county; these data were pulled from the Healthy Youth Survey.

In 2012, 55 of the 75 CBOs in Washington that registered to host Town Hall Meetings completed SAMHSA’s Organizers Survey. An estimate 7,450 community members attended just these 55 events. More than a third (34.7 percent) of CBOs reported that they would be writing a strategic plan for preventing underage drinking as a result of their Town Hall Meetings; nearly as many (32.7 percent) planned to establish a youth-led coalition expressly designed to address the issue.

Youth involvement appears to be significant contributor to the success of Town Hall Meetings in Washington; fully 83.6 percent of responding CBOs described their events as “youth-led.” Another key to Town Hall Meeting successes in the state appears to be collaboration between host CBOs and other organizations; more than 90 percent reported community partners for their events. Not so surprisingly, more than 90 percent said they were either “very satisfied” (35) or “somewhat satisfied” (15) by how their Town Hall Meetings had turned out. The vast majority (83.5 percent) of participants who responded to a Participant Survey left their Town Hall Meetings intending to share what they had learned with others.

Today, RUaD has the support of more than two dozen public and private agencies and is cochaired by staff at the Division of Behavioral Health and Recovery, the state agency responsible for overseeing Washington’s Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment block grant, and the administrator of the state Enforcing Underage Drinking Laws block grant. This joint leadership ensures that the coalition pursues a single statewide agenda consistent with federal underage drinking prevention goals. RUaD-sponsored campaigns, such as Let’s Draw the Line Between Youth and Alcohol minigrants and the Start Talking Before They Start Drinking website, echo and reinforce messages from SAMHSA and its national partners. Today, SAMHSA-sponsored Town Hall Meetings are an integral element in how RUaD and the local organizations across Washington State are working to bring down underage drinking rates even further. Says Langer, “SAMHSA has given us a very effective tool that is helping us make a difference. We look forward to building on the success of our Town Halls in 2014 and in the years ahead.”

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