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Underage Drinking in Falmouth: Educating Our Kids 

April 17, 2015  |  Falmouth Enterprise

Dr. Michael Bihari

The local news media continues to be filled with articles about the current heroin epidemic, which is threatening the lives and well-being of young adults on Cape Cod. This is a very serious issue that the community needs to address and there are a number of local initiatives dealing with the problem.

It’s important, however, to remember that the vast majority of youngsters do not use heroin or prescription narcotic pain killers; this is especially true among high-school aged kids. In that age group, the most commonly abused substance is alcohol. 

During the past seven years, the Falmouth Prevention Partnership has worked in local schools and with parents to dispel myths about teen alcohol use with a focus on the health-related and legal issues of underage drinking. That effort has led to a significant decline in teen alcohol use in Falmouth.

To better understand the extent of alcohol use among teens in Falmouth, the Partnership has surveyed students in grades 6 through 12. These surveys (using a nationally-recognized scientific questionnaire) done in 2009, 2011, and 2013, provide a picture of our kid’s involvement with substance abuse and the factors that place them at risk or protect them from unhealthy behaviors. A 2015 update is planned.

One important measure is a teen’s use of a substance in the past 30 days from the time they answered a question. The good news for Falmouth is the significant decrease in the 30-day use of alcohol between 2009 and 2013. Specifically, for Falmouth High School students the 30-day use of alcohol was down from 50.9% in 2009 to 43.4% in 2011 to 35.1% in 2013. You can see an analysis and the results of all the surveys on the Partnership website (falmouthprevention.org). The surveys can be found in Community Profile & Youth Surveys in the About FPP section of the site.

Social Host Laws

A study, “Relationships Between Social Host Laws and Underage Drinking” (published in the November 2014 issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs), notes that teens living in communities with strong social host laws are less likely to drink at parties. According to the study, “A growing number of communities and states are enacting these social host laws to prevent and reduce underage drinking in private settings. Laws that include strict liability and civil penalties were associated with reduced consumption of alcohol among adolescents in private settings, particularly among youth who had previously consumed alcohol.” 

The social host law in Massachusetts is clear: whoever furnishes alcohol to a person under 21 years of age shall be punished by a fine up to $2,000 or imprisonment for up to a year or both. It will be on you...

  • if your teen is caught with alcohol
  • if your teen gets arrested
  • if your teen has a car accident
  • if your teen injures themselves or others 

Before allowing your teen to drink or have a party in your home where alcohol will be served it’s important to understand the possible consequences. 

Part of the Curriculum: Social Host Law and Consequences for Underage Drinking

For the past several years, the Partnership (now part of the Gosnold Prevention Department) and the Falmouth Police Department have presented a program about our state’s social host laws as part of the health curriculum at Falmouth High School. Earlier this month Patty Mitrokostas, Director of Prevention at Gosnold and Police Captain Jeff Smith met with more than 250 students in six health classes to talk about the social host law and how violations of the law can have a damaging effect on them and their families.

The students also had the opportunity to ask questions and to share their thoughts about underage drinking and other substance abuse issues. By a show of hands, at least 50% of the kids acknowledged that their lives had been impacted in some way by alcohol or drug use.   

One highlight of the session was to have the students write down something positive they did or a good choice they made in the past two weeks. The presenters then read back some of these to the class. Interestingly, many of the kids had helped others dealing with the snowstorms, mentored students in lower grades, or intervened in some way with a friend or family member making a bad choice about drug or alcohol use. 

Home Assignment for Students and Parents

As part of the class, the students were given a homework assignment to be completed with their parents. The purpose of the assignment, which is graded and counts towards the students’ PE/Health grade for the quarter, is for the students to share information about the Massachusetts social host law with their parents and jointly complete a one-page work sheet about the law and the consequences of underage drinking.

Alcohol Assessment Survey

An important part of the class was to have the students complete a brief survey about alcohol use in Falmouth. Although this survey is not scientific, some of the results are interesting and can help the Partnership focus on some of the alcohol-related issues raised by the students’ responses. A total of 247 surveys were fully or partially completed. The following are several of the questions and a summary of the answers.

In the past year, how did you get access to any alcohol that you drank?

Almost half of the students said that they did not use alcohol in the last year. For the students who did drink, the most common source was a friend and/or alcohol was available at a party, followed by getting alcohol from an older sibling, and their parents or another adult - with or without permission. 15 students acknowledged that they paid a stranger to buy alcohol for them and 13 said they were able to get served at a liquor store, bar, or restaurant. Three students used a fake ID.

If you wanted to get alcohol from your home, without your parent’s knowledge, how difficult would it be?

29% of the kids answered that it would be very difficult or difficult, 30% said neither difficult nor easy, and 41% noted that it would be easy or very easy.

Thinking about your peers who drink alcohol, what is the most common reason you hear them cite for using?

The majority of the kids (almost 70%) said that having fun or to party were the most common reasons for drinking. Following that (and of some concern), more than 10% of the students use alcohol to deal with depression, stress, and anxiety and 7% drink to be cool, popular, or to fit in.

Holding these classes on a regular basis helps to promote a dialog between kids and parents about underage drinking and to make sure that the community is aware of our social host laws.

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