Changing the Underage Drinking Culture—La Crosse, WI
Changing the Culture of Risky Drinking Behavior is a coalition developed in 2007 by the La Crosse (Wisconsin) Medical Health Science Consortium and the Injury Research Center of the Medical College of Wisconsin to “... support and sustain safe community alcohol practices and policies to help discourage alcohol misuse in La Crosse County.” In April 2012, the coalition held a Town Hall Meeting, sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), on the campus of Viterbo University in La Crosse with the goal of fulfilling its name—changing the drinking culture. Over the past 5 years, the coalition has made progress in promoting the use of compliance checks to reduce the availability of alcohol to youth and has worked with area campuses to discourage underage and excessive drinking by college students. It planned its April 2012 Town Hall Meeting as a venue for discussing future policy implementation.
This event advanced three important goals for the consortium. First, the coalition used its April 2012 Town Hall Meeting as the official launch, in La Crosse County, of that year’s Parents Who Host Lose the Most campaign. Despite underage drinking laws being in place, some La Crosse–area residents appear to be unaware of their legal culpability when minors drink with their knowledge, or they mistakenly believe that providing alcohol to minors under their supervision is an effective form of harm reduction. The event attracted local media coverage of the fact that adults could face a stiff sentence, or even jail time, for providing alcohol to minors.
Second, the Town Hall Meeting furthered the coalition’s involvement with community sectors identified in SAMHSA’s Strategic Prevention Framework State Incentive Grant program. Educators, law enforcement, health professionals, and others who could help influence community attitudes and prevention practices around youth alcohol use turned out for the Town Hall Meeting. Nearly 100 local residents attended, including many Viterbo University students, who received credit for attending and reporting on what they learned.
Third, the coalition used the Town Hall Meeting to prepare for an infusion of funds to target alcohol policy change. In fall 2011, the Healthier Wisconsin Partnership Program awarded a 5-year, $750,000 grant to the coalition’s partnership with the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Injury Research Center to address alcohol policy change in the county. The Town Hall Meeting brought in a panel of speakers who highlighted the need for change. Featured speakers were a health educator from a Wisconsin county that had recently enacted several social host ordinances; a substance abuse counselor who discussed how alcohol abuse among young teens serves as a gateway to other drugs; a young woman in recovery from an underage alcohol addiction and her mother; and the coalition chair and local addiction center director, who described how the current alcohol culture in La Crosse helped frame policy issues the coalition would address with its new grant. Says the consortium’s director, Catherine Kolkmeier, “Town Hall Meetings have been a part of our overall and successful strategy to build community support for effective measures to reduce underage alcohol use and the costs it incurs.”