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More Kids Drinking at Younger Age

More grade school- and middle school-aged children say they’ve tried alcohaol or were willing to try alcohol, according to a report on underage drinking released by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board this month.

The biennial Report on Underage and High-Risk Drinking looks at current levels and trends of underage and college drinking and looks at prevention strategies by state and local agencies.

“Perhaps most troubling is the number of children 8, 9 and 10 years old — kids traditionally thought of as way too young to drink — who are trying alcohol and even drinking on a somewhat regular basis,” said PLCB Chairman Tim Holden in a release. “Whether that trend is inspired by increased consumption among adult populations or other factors, we don’t know, but these are important issues for the PLCB and public health and education communities to explore.”

About one in six Pennsylvania sixth-graders said they tried alcohol and more than one in three eighth-graders tried alcohol, according to the report. Seven out of 10 high school seniors say they’ve tried alcohol, the report found.

Statewide, 7.8 percent of students reported binge drinking, or consuming five or more drinks in a row in the past two weeks, the report said. In Luzerne and Schuylkill counties, 8.2 percent of students reported binge drinking, slightly above the state average, and Carbon County was slightly below the state average at 7.5 percent.

Pennsylvania was below the national average for binge drinking in eighth and 10th grades but not for 12th, the report found. However, there was a reduction in binge drinking from 2013 to 2015, the report said.

Across the state, 27.3 percent of students reported a willingness to try alcohol. Luzerne and Carbon counties was below the state average at 24.2 percent and 22.7 percent, respectively, and Schuylkill County was higher than the state at 28.7 percent, the report found.

The report uses data collected from the 2015 Pennsylvania Youth Survey, in which local school districts participate. Hazleton Area School District Superintendent Craig Butler said there weren’t any outlandish concerns in the local report.

The access to and willingness to try alcohol was actually below the state average in eighth, 10th and 12th grades, Butler said, and only slightly above for the state average for sixth grade. The district was also below the state average for where students say they acquired the alcohol, he said. Some sources include parents, friends and siblings.

The district offers alcohol and drug prevention programs to middle school students, Butler said.

Eileen Panzarella, prevention director at Pathways to Recovery in Hazleton, which presents prevention programs in the school district, said they’re seeing low alcohol use by students until high school.

“We have been targeting the middle school grades for the last 15 years with different science-based curriculums,” she said. “The past four years we have presented life skills training to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. This year, we were able to restart the fourth-grade program, Too Good For Drugs.”

The programs teach about drugs and alcohol, but also resiliency skills, such as how to cope with anxiety and anger, being assertive, conflict resolution and dealing with peer pressure, Panzarella said. They also teach communication and social skills, she said.

“I think we have to reach the kids in a lot of different ways,” she said. “In the past, kids learned these things at home. Now, we’re not seeing that. It’s kind of fallen on the schools to teach things that we learned at home.”

Panzarella said Pathways would like to offer more programs, but the funding isn’t available The state eliminated the Drug-Free School funds which the district received until 2010, she said.

“We now receive no funding from the school district because they do not receive the Drug-Free School money from the state,” Panzarella said. “We’re barely covering these grades.”

The PLCB is developing a new campaign to help parents of elementary and middle school-aged children address underage drinking with their kids, the report said.

Statewide, 15.8 percent of sixth-graders have tried alcohol and by eighth grade, 33.9 percent have tried alcohol, the report said. The numbers jump again in 10th grade to 54.2 percent and in 12th grade to 71 percent, the report said.

“These use rates suggest the need to focus prevention efforts on younger students to educate them about the risks of underage drinking before they have opportunity to try alcohol,” the report said. “If more than half of 10th-grade students have already tried alcohol within their lifetimes, resources may be best focused on elementary and middle school students to affect change in behavior.”

Among college students, nearly 80 percent said they drank in the past year and 67.5 percent say they drank in the last 30 days, the report said. Fifty-seven percent reported drinking underage and 46 percent said they binge drank in the last two weeks, the report said.

About 82 percent of male college students saw drinking as a central part of socializing, while 73 percent of females saw drinking as a central part of socializing, the report said.

At Penn State Hazleton, underage drinking exists but the numbers are very low, said Tracy Garnick, director of student services and engagement. The school has a no-alcohol policy and students caught violating it go through the conduct system, and must complete a feedback and counseling program, she said.

Penn State takes a proactive approach to teach students about alcohol and how it can affect them and their academics, Garnick said. Education begins before students even begin classes, as students and their parents must complete an online course, she said. Students complete another course six weeks into the semester to follow up with them, Garnick said.

Educational programs go on throughout the school year, including learning about the misuse and abuse of alcohol and sexual assault with the use of alcohol, she said.

The school also gives its students, especially those living on campus, a variety of events and entertainment that are alcohol-free, such as movie nights out or trips to University Park, Garnick said.

She feels the numbers at the Hazleton campus don’t mimic the state and national numbers because it is a small campus with a 24/7 police force and many students commute from home. Very few students live in off-campus housing, where drinking parties often occurred, Garnick said.

The report found numerous trends among underage drinkers, including vaporizing or inhaling alcohol; limiting food or purging calories to accommodate the alcohol calories, especially among college students; mixing alcohol and marijuana or other drugs; and mixing alcohol with caffeine or energy drinks.

Locally, the trend to not eat before going out drinking is common among sororities, Panzarella said, based on information from her interns. But a bigger trend here is putting alcohol into hookah pipes, especially among the Spanish community, she said.

Many families have large hookah pipes in their homes and everyone smokes, especially during celebrations, she said. Many of the middle schoolers that she works with didn’t know there was tobacco used in the pipes, Panzarella said. A liquid, such as juice or Kool-Aid, is normally used in the pipes, but older students are using alcohol, she said.

Mixing alcohol and marijuana is also trend locally, as people want a “better high” or a “better drunk,” Panzarella said. But mixing drugs is dangerous, she said, because it increases the potency and also increases impairment.
Alcoholic energy drinks were popular in the area about five years ago, but the trend dropped off, she said.

“When Four Lokos first came out, all the kids were talking about it,” Panzarella said. “Even middle schoolers got their parents to buy it. The kids don’t talk about them now.”

PLCB, as an alcohol retailer, performs more than 1 million age verification checks each year as part of its efforts to reduce underage and dangerous drinking, the report said.

The agency also provides responsible alcohol management training for licensees and their employees, the report said. It also provides more than $1 million in grants for alcohol-deterrence efforts and hosts an annual conference for experts and participants to discuss alcohol education issues, the report said.

The agency also provides training for resident assistants on college campuses, and partners with communities and organizations committed to prevention of alcohol abuse and underage drinking, the report said.


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