The acting U.S. Surgeon General Kenneth Moritsugu was in Hawai‘i recently to launch his “Call to Action” initiative which focuses on a unified effort between government, communities, educators and families to prevent and reduce underage drinking.
In his presentation, Moritsugu told the audience that new research on the long-term negative effects of alcohol use on the developing adolescent brain demonstrates a compelling need to address the problem of underage drinking by utilizing a systemic approach.
“We definitely need to work together if we’re going to solve this huge problem,” said Anti-drug Coordinator Theresa Koki, in a press release.
Eric Honma, director of the Department of Liquor Control, who attended the Call to Action kick-off meeting, agrees.
“I think the surgeon general’s initiative complements existing programs and is very timely,” said Honma in the release.
“There are a number of effective programs already in place on Kaua‘i, but we will be looking at ways that we can incorporate some of the ideas in the Call to Action initiative,” said Honma.
The Liquor Control Department’s Compliance Check program implemented six years ago has resulted in a dramatic reduction in the number of retailers with liquor licenses who sell alcohol to minors.
“We started out with a 39 percent failure rate and it has since dropped to about eight percent,” said Honma, according to the release. “Hopefully, it will go down even more.”
His goal is to have the failure rate decrease to 5 percent or less.
Partners in the program include the Kaua‘i Police Department and minors who are specially trained volunteers for Mothers Against Drunk Driving on O‘ahu.
The way the program works, explained Honma, is that a minor enters a retail store accompanied by an undercover police officer and a liquor investigator. After making a selection from the liquor case, the minor goes to the checkout and attempts to purchase the alcoholic beverage.
If the cashier asks for a form of identification, the minor will produce a valid ID, which shows his actual age. If the transaction is completed in spite of the buyer being underage, the police officer will cite the cashier for selling liquor to a minor, which is a violation of section 281 of the Hawai‘i Revised Statutes.
Additionally, the store will also be cited by the accompanying liquor investigator.
For the violation, the cashier will be prosecuted in district court and face a fine of up to $2,000, a year in jail or both. In turn, the store will be prosecuted before the Kaua‘i Liquor Commission and face a fine of up to $2,000, suspension or revocation of its liquor license.
With all the reasons given for rule-breaking, it does pose a challenge for officials with the Department of Liquor Control to develop training sessions for retailers.
“Since we can’t tailor the sessions to fit a particular profile, we try to cover several different facets of the issue including: how to identify a false ID; how to calculate a birth date; the importance of asking for an ID; and what to look for,” states Honma, in the release.
Another program utilized by the department to reduce underage drinking is called the Shoulder Tap program.
In this scenario, a specially trained minor loiters in a designated parking lot, selects someone and asks him to purchase liquor for the minor’s consumption.
“What the minor says is scripted so if the adult agrees to do it, he knows what he’s getting into,” Honma noted, adding that not many individuals have been cited for buying alcohol for a minor.
In the department’s OnnPremise Licensee Program, a specially trained minor goes to an establishment where liquor is served with an undercover police officer and attempts to order an alcoholic beverage.
If he is served liquor, the licensee is cited for serving liquor to a minor, which carries the same penalty that a retailer who sells alcohol to a minor is assessed.
“Besides enforcement, there are a number of prevention programs in place that discourage underage drinking,” said Honma.
One of the most dramatic programs is the Kaua‘i Rural Health Association’s Shattered Dreams program, where teenagers and their families enact what happens after a major traffic accident caused by teenage alcohol consumption.
The scenario unfolds at a local high school where the entire student body and the families of the victims witness the graphic demonstration. From there the students who “die” in the accident are transported in a hearse to Wilcox Hospital. The affected families gather at the hospital and have to deal with the loss of their children.
“It’s so realistic that the participants become very emotional and actually utilize the counseling services offered by Kaua‘i Hospice,” states the release.
Following the events, an assembly is held at the high school where the consequences of drinking and driving are strongly emphasized.
Among the agencies that participate in the Shattered Dreams program are the Kaua‘i Police and Fire Departments, American Medical Response, Department of Liquor Control and the county’s Anti-Drug Office.
“Kaua‘i was the first island in the state to launch the Shattered Dreams program in 2003,” said Koki, in the release. “Now the other islands are following suit.”
Another program that addresses the problem of underage drinking is The Parent Project. One of the chapters in the textbook for the course which is updated regularly covers the identification and prevention of alcohol and other drug use and intervention techniques.
“It offers a six-step action plan for parents on how to find out whether their children have been drinking or doing drugs and how to help them if they have been,” Koki states.
Some of the other county programs aimed at preventing alcohol and drug use among young people and promote making positive choices include Speed & Quickness Clinics and the Youth and Drug summits.
“If you look at the statistics about underage drinking, it’s quite alarming,” said Honma. “I think that whatever we can do to keep our youngsters from starting to consume alcohol is worthwhile.”