A television and radio campaign launched this week by state officials aims to curb underage drinking in a state that already boasts the lowest rates in the nation.
Backed by Utah’s first lady, Mary Kaye Huntsman, along with several other groups, ParentsEmpowered.org hopes to get the message out that parents are the best defense against underage drinking.
According to research released by ParentsEmpowered, children in Utah begin drinking as early as the sixth grade and most parents begin talking to their children about the problem two years too late.
Children who begin drinking before age 15 have a 40 percent chance of becoming alcohol dependent, compared to a 7 percent chance for someone who starts drinking at the legal age of 21, according to the group.
“The earlier a kids starts drinking, the more likely they’re going to have significant problems later in life,” said Craig PoVey, program manager for the Utah Department of Substance Abuse and Mental Health. He added that the consequences of underage drinking include more than just alcohol dependency. “If you can keep them from drinking until they’re 21, the chances of them having any problems at all are almost nil.”
Most parents believe their children’s friends have the greatest influence over their decision to drink or not, PoVey said. But he said most students surveyed by his department said their parents had the greatest influence.
Jessica Barber, an 18-year-old Utah Valley State College student, said she drank regularly earlier in her teens, but said her relationship with her mother helped her stop.
“She wasn’t too happy,” Barber said. “But my mom and I have a good relationship. We talked about it and she understood.”
Because underage drinking numbers in Utah are far below the national average, PoVey said it will be difficult to see major drops in percentages. But he said the campaign is about more than numbers.
“I think sometimes we get lost in the percentages,” he said. “If we can reduce the negative outcomes and the consequences of underage drinking, we’re making headway.”
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 18.6 percent of students in Utah under the age of 21 reported drinking alcohol in the past 30 days. The national average was 28.8 percent, with North Dakota’s 42.7 percent topping the list.
In Utah County, those numbers are even lower, according to statistics compiled by the Utah Department of Substance Abuse and Mental Health. Less than 9 percent of high school seniors reported using alcohol in the last 30 days, compared to a state average of 20.5 percent, according to the department’s 2005 survey.
Utah colleges also enjoy a low rate of underage drinking. According to the DSAMH’s 2005 Substance Abuse Treatment Needs Survey, 14.5 percent of college students under the age of 21 reported regular use of alcohol.
A lack of a traditional Greek system combined with student housing that is predominantly Brigham Young University-approved means there are fewer opportunities for underage drinkers, Corey Smith, a 20-year-old UVSC student, said.
“There are less places for people to drink,” he said.