In Newton, NJ, the Center for Prevention and Counseling has hosted Communities Talk: Town Hall Meetings to Prevent Underage Drinking every year since 2006. At their event on April 12, 2016, the Center celebrated 23 winners of an "Elect to be Alcohol-Free" contest for youth recognizing April as Alcohol Awareness Month. Winning entries ranged from posters to radio and video PSAs.
The Communities Talk event employed a variety of formats to convey the impact of underage drinking to its multifaceted audience. In addition to presenting federal data on underage drinking, event organizers also conducted simulation exercises that brought the point home visually.
Participants at the standing room only event included Newton Chief of Police Michael Richards; school administrators and teachers; a representative from the local newspaper, the New Jersey Herald; and New Jersey State Senator Steven Oroho, who has come to the last 10 Communities Talk: Town Hall Meetings to Prevent Underage Drinking.
How They Did It
According to Becky Carlson, Center for Prevention and Counseling Executive Director, the following elements contributed to the success of their 2016 Communities Talk event:
- Securing youth investment.
Carlson attributes the event's success to the participation of youth, who were involved in the planning process and also served as presenters. According to Carlson, the investment of these youth provided the necessary draw for parents, teachers, school administrators, clergy, and others who wanted to celebrate youth in their community.
- Using memorable stats to spread prevention messages.
The Center's prevention initiatives—including its 2016 Communities Talk event—point to a finding known as the "15-5-21" rule, drawn from a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report. The rule states that youth who drink before age 15 are 5 to 7 times more likely than those who start drinking after age 21 to develop alcohol problems such as binge drinking or alcohol dependence. "People really remember the 15-5-21 research," Carlson stated. "They understand the brain science behind it."
- Showing, not just telling.
A Fatal Vision® Goggles simulation exercise demonstrated firsthand all the data and stories that had been shared up to that point. After showing the effect of the goggles on one student's ability to walk in a straight line and catch a tennis ball, the presenter then asked the student a series of questions about their ability to perform other tasks while impaired, like babysitting a sibling or playing sports. The exercise got the audience thinking about the effect of underage drinking on day-to-day responsibilities and activities.
Often, meaningful results take time. While the Center started their Communities Talk meetings in 2006—and has hosted them even in non-stipend years—it wasn't until 2015 that they started seeing a significant decrease in underage drinking.
"We've seen pretty big drops in our underage drinking numbers from 6th to 12th grade over the last three years," shared Carlson. "The last survey we did was in the 2015/16 school year, and we saw a 42 percent decrease in the use of alcohol among 6th to 12th graders in the county. Seeing that decrease shows us that fewer kids are drinking and the message is getting out there."
Anecdotally, Carlson also has witnessed more prevention events and conversations taking place as a result of the meetings. In other words, the community is talking. And underage drinking in Newton, NJ, is decreasing.
A Community in Action
New Jersey's Center for Prevention and Counseling plans to pursue the following underage drinking prevention strategies:
- Advocating for all of the state's municipalities to adopt the Underage Drinking Ordinance, which prohibits anyone under 21 from consuming alcohol on private property.
- Sending personalized letters—signed by Chief of Police Michael Richards—to parents of graduating seniors, congratulating them on the milestone and demonstrating ways their senior can celebrate without alcohol.
- Integrating underage drinking prevention messaging into existing events, observances, meetings—anywhere, at any time (not just during Alcohol Awareness Month in April or during Communities Talk events, but year-round).
- Engaging youth in Sticker Shock events to reduce the access of minors to alcohol. In collaboration with local liquor stores, youth place stickers on products throughout the store to act as "warning" labels to inform the public of the consequences they can face if they provide or purchase alcohol for minors.
- Working across sectors ranging from schools to the police force, local media, and clergy to spread the underage drinking prevention message.
- Talking about the brain in a way that informs and empowers parents and youth to be champions of underage drinking prevention.