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Alcohol Awareness Month is coming up in April, but there’s no fooling around when it comes to underage drinking. The legal drinking age in Hawaii, and the other 49 states, is 21. Penalties are high and tolerance is low. In fact, Hawaii has zero tolerance for minors foolish enough to drink and drive, and any measurable amount of alcohol is over the legal limit.

Youth under 21 who buy alcohol (any kind), who attempt to buy it with a fake ID, or who have alcohol in their possession, are breaking the law. Their driver’s license or permit can be suspended for at least 180 days; they may have to serve 75 hours of community service and go through 8-12 hours of alcohol counseling, which they or their parents have to pay for.

In spite of serious consequences for underage drinkers, however, recent surveys of Hawaii Island students indicated that almost half (49.8 percent) of high school seniors had used alcohol in the past 30 days.*

“I think it is very common,” said South Kohala’s Community Police Officer Kristi Crivello. “For example, many families get together and barbecue in the backyard or down at the beach on the weekends and it seems like a safe and contained atmosphere, so many times it is allowed. This lifestyle grows with the kids and it becomes a normal thing.”

“Unfortunately, it seems like this generation of younger parents have more of a friend type of relationship with their child versus a parental type of relationship,” Crivello said. “They seem to be OK with the consumption of alcohol as long as it is at ‘home’ or as long as the child is up front with them and they know about it. This is not OK!”

Adults are breaking the law if they provide alcohol to minors, or if they allow underage drinking on their property. In dollars and cents, that could mean a fine of up to $2,000 and/or up to a year in jail, community service, substance abuse assessment, and being subject to random drug/alcohol tests. These adult “social hosts” can also be held liable (financially and criminally) for any third party injury from damages, violence, date rape, car crashes, etc.

Crivello said that many times people don’t want to speak up, especially at a family gathering, or if the hosting adult is a friend.

“I don’t think people realize the dangers and consequences one incident can cause … or how much alcohol can affect a person’s judgment,” she said. “One accident can ruin lives.”

The time to talk is before something happens. In fact, when parents talk to their children about alcohol, those kids are half as likely to drink. They do better in school, and make better decisions about drugs and other risky behaviors. Parents are their No. 1 most significant influence when it comes to making decisions about drugs and alcohol; and when extended families work together to deliver consistent messaging, it’s even better.

You don’t have to wait for the big party to speak up, and a little planning goes a long way. Separate the coolers, have designated drivers, and don’t be shy about talking to the kids. And, as prom season approaches, it’s even more important to drive the message home. Underage drinking and driving is illegal, dangerous and never worth the risk. Let’s work together to help make sure our youth “arrive alive.”

A wealth of ideas and resources to help start the conversation are available from the Substances and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at http://www.underagedrinking.samhsa.gov/conversation.aspx.

Communities working together can raise awareness of underage drinking and make a difference. Our NHDFC team learned a lot from last summer’s successful “Models Not Bottles” campaign, and one of the most important was the fact that youth who don’t drink want to be supported in their decision to stay sober. Please visit www.ModelsNotBottles.org for more information.

We asked Officer Crivello if there was a message she’d like to send to parents about kids and drinking.

“Underage drinking is not OK and it is not cool,” she said. “They should show their love and support for their children by being a positive role model. Let them know underage drinking is illegal. Let them know you will not support it. They may not like it now, but one day they will get it. And they will respect you for it!”

So don’t be afraid of looking foolish in April. Go ahead and talk to kids about Alcohol Awareness Month.

The North Hawaii Drug-Free Coalition, a project of Five Mountains Hawaii, is a regional volunteer organization committed to developing strong, sustaining relationships for Healthy Communities Choosing to Live Drug Free. For more information, visit www.fivemountains.org/nhdfc.

*County of Hawaii: Epidemiological Profile of Alcohol Related Behaviors Among Youth, Spring 2007; current revision May 2010, prepared by: SPF-SIG Epidemiological Team.