DAYTON -- The "Message in a Bottle" is not a good one for Columbia County youth.
Results of a 2008 Healthy Youth survey show that alcohol use among sixth- to 12th-graders in Columbia County is significantly higher than the state average.
Columbia County high school seniors surveyed drink 11 percent more frequently, nearly 50 percent more heavily (5 or more drinks in a row), and are almost three times as likely to drive while or after drinking than their peers statewide.
More than 50 people attended a town hall meeting Thursday to discuss underage alcohol use in Columbia County.
Superior Court Judge William Acey, who moderated a panel of community members who work with youth, opened the meeting by saying he feels there is too much enabling of underage alcohol use by parents.
"How much have you been contributing to a clear problem we have here in Columbia County?" he asked the audience.
The Rev. Greg Bye of the Redeemer Lutheran Church agreed with Acey that parental permissiveness is part of the problem. "I've watched people in this community just wink and say 'boys will be boys,'" he said.
Panelist Kris Darby, who oversees emergency medical services in the county, noted his crews "see kids who typically drink." When they become patients, they are sick or injured and it is due to alcohol use, he said.
Other panelists included county prosecuting attorney Rea Culwell, juvenile justice counselor Vance Norsworthy, sheriff's deputy Mark Franklin, Todd Wagner, counselor at Blue Mountain Counseling, and Shelly Franklin, Dayton High School teacher.
Young people drink to get drunk, Acey said.
Darby said effects of alcohol use begin with the first drink, and include slurred speech, slow responses, confused conversation and wanting to sleep a lot.
Long-term consequences for young people include slower maturity and loss of bone density. Alcohol use can also lead to alcoholism, liver disease and other diseases.
Two recovering alcoholics recounted their struggles with alcoholism.
One grew up in a home where alcohol was consumed daily, and the other in a home where alcohol was not used.
For Maura Trainor, "it wasn't if I was going to drink, but when I was going to drink," she said. That "when" was at age 13, when she drank nine Margaritas at a family gathering, and reveled in the confidence the alcohol gave her.
Her mother chastised her for drinking so much, but not for drinking, she said.
Phil Howard said he started drinking when he got his driver's license. He has been in recovery for 10 1/2 years, but he said "alcohol is cunning."
Audience members asked the panel a number of questions, including whether those who furnish alcohol to underage users are punished.
Mark Franklin said he had researched some statistics, and in 2007 there were 49 alcohol-related convictions, and five were for furnishing liquor to minors.
In response to a statement that drinking is tolerated by the prosecutor and law enforcement, Culwell said when citizens know someone is providing alcohol to underage drinkers, they should report it.
"We know the stores, we know the players," she said. But there is a shortage of witnesses willing to step forward, she said.
"They don't sell it when we're around," Mark Franklin noted.
Dayton Mayor Craig George asked what is being done to prevent underage alcohol use.
Peggy Guitterez, a prevention specialist at Blue Mountain Counseling, said prevention has to be done across the whole community. Parents are the No. 1 reason kids give as the reason they don't use.
"Don't think we can wait until they are in junior high school. We have to start when they are born," she said.
Panelists offered advice to parents.
Mark Franklin: "As adults we need to support each other Let them (children) face consequences when they're young and the consequences are small."
Culwell: "Know where your kids are and what they're doing."
Norsworthy: "It's not too late to regain control. You can say as a parent 'Yes, I've made some mistakes, but we need to take control.'"
Mark Franklin: "Being a parent comes before being a friend."
The town hall meeting was sponsored by the Columbia County Community Network and the Coalition for Youth and Families through a grant from the Washington State Coalition to Reduce Underage Drinking (RuaD).
Carrie Chicken can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 522-5289.
For more information
Visit the Healthy Youth Survey site, www.AskHYS.net for more results from the 2008 survey.
Further resources can be found at starttalkingnow.org.
The Coalition for Youth and Families meets on the third Thursday of each month at 7:45 a.m. at the Delany Building.