2006-03-23 / Front Page

Forum targets teenage drinking problem

By Donna K. Drago

Next week's panel discussion on underage drinking will provide parents, teens, and members of the community with information on a problem that plagues towns across the country.

The forum, on Tuesday, March 28, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the library, will include representatives from the police department, a liquor store owner, the teen coordinator, the schools' student assistance counselor, and a facilitator from the state, who is a licensed chemical dependency professional. The event is part of the TV Turnoff Week schedule of activities.

According to Laura Hosley, the chairwoman of the island's Substance Abuse Prevention Task Force, who organized the panel discussion, teens typically have their first alcoholic beverage at the age of 13.1 years, which is between grades 8 and 9. Hosley said teens who begin drinking before the age of 15 are four times more likely to become dependent on alcohol than someone who begins drinking after the age of 21.

Furthermore, Hosley said, alcohol is usually involved in all four of the leading causes of death of children and young people between the ages of 10 and 24. These leading causes are car accidents, unintentional injuries, suicide, and homicide, Hosley said.

Last year in Jamestown, the health curriculum began to include alcohol awareness lessons for students in grades 6 through 8, Hosley said, adding that in grade 6 there is homework that students and parents must do together to encourage dialogue about the dangers of alcohol.

Hosley said that teens and their parents and anyone who works with teens in education, recreation or in the services industries, would benefit from the discussion.

Sgt. Jack Dube, a veteran Jamestown police officer, will represent the police department at the panel discussion.

Dube said he will tell teens and their parents what the current laws are, as well as what risks teens take by drinking under age.

New laws, passed in recent years, include that minors are considered "impaired" if their blood alcohol level is .02. In adults, the threshold is .08. Dube noted "it takes one beer" to get to .02 in most people. Formerly, if a group of teens was caught drinking in a car, only the driver was charged, Dube said. Now, even if teens are caught drinking on the beach, or on the street, without any car in sight, they can lose their drivers' license, Dube added.

Another law that was recently passed is that anyone who buys a keg of beer must have their name and address written on a card attached to the side of the keg. That person will then be held accountable for anyone who becomes impaired after drinking from that keg.

"The ante has been upped" on many of the state's alcohol laws, Dube said.

Frank LaPere, owner of Grapes & Gourmet, which is a liquor store and gourmet food shop on Ferry Wharf, will be a panelist at the discussion.

LaPere's business was cited last fall as part of a sting to catch businesses who were selling alcohol to minors.

"It was a wake up call," LaPere said, noting that in the months since his business was cited, he has paid to have his entire staff of six employees trained in the TIPS alcohol training program, even though liquor stores have an option not to take the course.

He has reviewed and revised all store policies to ensure that nothing is sold to a minor, and now everyone who looks "under 30," is carded, LaPere said.

There are only four types of identification that are now accepted at the shop, LaPere said, a valid driver's license, a R.I. State ID card, a military ID, or a passport. They no longer accept out of state ID cards as proof of age, LaPere said, noting, "Sometimes we have to turn people away."

LaPere said he has been told by some of his adult customers that they have been approached by minors in the parking lot, and asked to buy some alcohol for them.

"We're aware of it," LaPere said, noting that it typically happens on weekend nights.

When the shop was caught, LaPere said, he had his license renewal held up until he appeared before the Town Council sitting as the board of Alcoholic Beverage Licensing Board. Then acting Police Chief Bill Donovan made recommendations that each of the cited business should follow to ensure their continued licensing, including to help educate the public on teen drinking, LaPere said.

"That's one of the reasons I'm appearing on the panel," LaPere said, "to fulfill my commitment" to the licensing board.

LaPere noted that the employee who actually made the sale to the minor was fined.

Hosley said that in the 10 years that the task force has been working with the police on the alcohol compliance checks, "we catch people nearly every time."

"It's really disappointing," Hosley said, noting that two possible causes of the businesses serving minors are "lack of training" and "young employees."

Given the stiffer penalties that have been passed, "I can't imagine why people would take the chance" on serving minors, Hosley said.

Another panelist, Jamestown Teen Co-ordinator Melissa Minto, said that while she doesn't see a problem with the teens that regularly attend activities at the island's Teen Center, "it's the one's who don't come" who may be at risk for drinking or other substance abuse.

The Teen Center is there to give them a "wide variety of activities to keep them involved," Minto said, noting that when teens are engaged and feel like part of the community they are less likely to get themselves into difficult situations.

"What I do," Minto explained, "is give them skills to combat boredom, so they won't get into trouble."

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