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Lancaster County’s Coalition for Healthy Youth met for its monthly meeting Wednesday, Jan. 15, where members discussed what organizers say is an alarming increase in underage drinking among local youth.
Local law enforcement also joined the meeting held at the University of SOuth Caoolina Lancaster’s Carole Ray Dowling Health Services Center to discuss their efforts to stymie both underage drinking and DUIs.
Coalition for Healthy Youth is a collaboration between the county school district, nonprofits, law enforcement and faith-based organizations dedicated to preventing substance abuse among local youth and the community.
According to data collected for the coalition by the Lancaster County School District’s Research and Development Department, underage drinking in Lancaster County not only increased during 2013 after a downward trend since 2008, but considerably exceeds the national average.
“We’ve been collecting data for four years,” said Lancaster County School District Research and Development Director Paul McKenzie, who is also a coalition member. “Right out of the chute (in 2013), underage drinking is increasing in Lancaster County.”
Citing anonymous surveys conducted in September at local schools, McKenzie said 31.9 percent of Lancaster County youth admitted drinking alcohol in the past 30 days. The rate for those 17 years old and older, McKenzie said, was 40.4 percent.
McKenzie compared local results with the results of a survey released in October that shows the national rate of alcohol use by youth ages 12 to 20 in the past 30 days was 24.3 percent. The national survey was conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
McKenzie said the percentage of local youth who admitted binge drinking in the past 30 days, which he defined as drinking five or more alcoholic beverages in a two-hour period, was 14.8 percent for ages 12 to 20 and 20.7 percent for ages 17 to 21.
“There are people who think problems with drinking and drugs happen only in urban communities,” McKenzie said, “but the fastest growing problem is occurring in rural communities the size of Lancaster and smaller.”
The surveys also revealed the most common ways underage drinkers get their alcohol, McKenzie said.
According to the data, 25.6 percent of underage drinkers said they got their alcohol at a party or other social event; and 25.4 percent said they got it from a non-relative who was 21 years old or older.
Other sources included siblings or relatives, 18.4 percent; someone who sells it illegally, 11.9 percent; asking a stranger to buy it, 10 percent; purchased from a store, 7.1 percent; and served at a restaurant/bar and stealing it from a store, both 6.3 percent.
McKenzie said perhaps most troubling was that many of the county’s underage drinkers don’t have to put much effort into getting alcohol: 22.4 percent said they got it from home, with or without their parent’s permission, while 19.1 percent said they drank at home with parental permission.
“A significant amount of underage drinking begins in the home,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie said the increase in underage drinking mirrors another troubling trend – an increase in DUI accidents.
According to a graph used by McKenzie during the meeting, there were nine DUI-related accidents in 2010 involving drivers over the age of 21 and two involving underage drivers.
In 2011, the last year in which data was provided, there were four DUI-related accidents involving drivers over the age of 21 and five involving underage drinkers.
McKenzie said to battle local drunk driving, the coalition and local law enforcement launched the “Take ‘U’ Out of DUI” campaign.
The campaign calls for a two-pronged approach of DUI enforcement and public awareness to reduce DUI.
The key, he said, is drivers’ perceived risk of DUI.
“If people in a community believe they will get caught, they won’t drive drunk,” he said. “And if they believe they won’t get caught, they will drive drunk.”
Law enforcement officials at the meeting included Lancaster County Sheriff Barry Faile, Lancaster Police Department Lt. Jeff Meeks and S.C. Highway Patrol First Sgt. J.P. Harrison and Sgt. Randy Walters.
Like the other representatives, Faile said his office has a role in working with the coalition to decrease DUI in Lancaster County.
Faile said though his deputies have always responded to DUIs, up until 2013 city police and the highway patrol carried the greater part of the county’s traffic and DUI enforcement responsibilities as his office focused on property and other crimes.
Since then, he said, his office has placed a renewed focus on DUI, and with the help of a DUI enforcement grant, has significantly increased the number of retail compliance checks, driver ID checks, DUI and equipment checkpoints conducted by deputies.
The result, Faile said, was a jump in DUI arrests by his deputies from 22 in 2012 to 107 in 2013.
“We all have a role in this,” Faile said. “I want you to know the sheriff’s office is fully committed when it comes to enforcing DUI laws in Lancaster County.
“We are committed because we are all in this together,” he said.
In responding to questions from coalition members, Meeks, Harrison and Walters all said while law enforcement will continue to do its part, the most important link in preventing drunk driving – especially among teens – is family.
“If you know they’re going out to a party, make sure they know, do not drink and drive,” Walters said. “Say that time after time, it will sink in.”
Harrison said it might be helpful for parents to point out to teens the penalties if they get caught drinking and driving.
In South Carolina, those under the age of 21 face a fine and/or jail time – and lose their drivers license for 90 days to six months – for even buying beer or wine.
The state’s Zero Tolerance underage driving law means if drivers under the age of 21 have a blood alcohol level as low as .02, the penalty is an automatic three month administrative suspension of their drivers license or permit.
“That’s effective. No teen wants to lose their license,” Harrison said.
McKenzie said the coalition believes Lancaster County can be successful in reducing both underage drinking and DUI, but it will take everyone working together.
Parents, he said, should talk to their children about drug and alcohol use.
Parents also need to be aware of where their children are, whether alcohol is available, and keeping an eye on alcohol at home, either by doing away with it all together, locking it away or marking bottles.
Family and friends also play a part in making sure their loved ones don’t drive.
“It will take an ‘environmental effort,’ McKenzie said. “Which means changing how the community itself thinks about alcohol.”
Contact reporter Reece Murphy at (803) 283-1151