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Fighting teen drinking


Zac Parenti, a senior at Analy High School in Sebastopol, is on the front line of Sonoma County's campaign against teenage drinking.

He's familiar with the statistics that show nearly four out of 10 high school juniors are consuming alcohol and nearly three out of 10 are binging with five or more drinks in a row.

Binge drinking, deemed the most common underage alcohol consumption pattern, has become "a primary public health priority," according to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report in 2011.

Sonoma County officials are concerned that binge drinking escalates during the teen years — from 3 percent of seventh graders to 13 percent of ninth graders and 27 percent of 11th graders — according to the latest countywide survey.

But they've also realized that many teens are deaf to the "do's" and "don'ts" coming from adults, even when the evidence abounds that alcohol can ruin, even end, young lives.

Nor does it help that many adults are willing enablers of teen drinking, believing it is a so-called "lesser evil." Or that alcohol is readily available to underage drinkers and that, some say, Wine Country culture celebrates alcohol.

The anti-drinking message must be transmitted from teen to teen, local officials say.

"We are working with youth to find their voice," said Donna Newman-Fields, alcohol and drug prevention coordinator for the Sonoma County Department of Health Services.

There's evidence that the approach — part of a comprehensive alcohol and drug prevention program funded by annual grants of $350,000 since 2007 — is paying off.

"I think we have a model that works," said Lynn Garric, Safe Schools project director for the Sonoma County Office of Education.

Parenti, the 18-year-old president of Analy's Operation 1-4-1, said the best way is to make the message personal, "to share our life's experience," he said.

Parenti's story is compelling. Battling depression, he began self-medicating with alcohol and drugs at 13 and was addicted within a year, he said.

With help from family, friends and the Analy club, Parenti said he regained sobriety three years ago. "I'm pretty open about it," he said, regarding his willingness — and motive — for telling other teens his story.

"I've been through hell and back, and I don't wish it on anybody else," Parenti said.

Analy's student group operates under the umbrella of Project Success Plus, which serves about 11,000 high school students in the West Sonoma County, Cotati-Rohnert Park, Petaluma, Windsor, Healdsburg and Cloverdale school districts.

One component of the multi-faceted education and prevention program, initiated in 2007, includes student clubs engaged in peer mentoring. Their target audience, however, is not necessarily their fellow students in high school.

Michael McCracken, the Analy club advisor and Project Success Plus program coordinator, recalls that in 2008 some students told him: "Mr. M., if you want to make a difference you've got to go to the middle schools."

Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of the 3,457 Sonoma County high school juniors surveyed in the fall of 2011 said they had consumed at least one drink in their lifetime and 38 percent are currently drinking.

Nearly half (49 percent) of the juniors said they first tried alcohol between age 13 and 16, according to the California Healthy Kids Survey for 2011-12.

For many kids, the path starts in middle school. Only 1 percent of Sonoma County fifth graders said they have consumed alcohol. Within two years, the number swells to 7 percent of seventh graders. Then it catapults to 22 percent of ninth graders and 38 percent of 11th graders.

Binge drinking also escalates from 3 percent of seventh graders to 13 percent of ninth graders and 27 percent of 11th graders, the age when many students are seriously preparing for college.

"That's usually what teenagers will do," said Maddie Evans, an Analy senior and Operation 1-4-1 member. Students may go for days or weeks without alcohol, then drink a lot at once, even more than the five drinks in two hours that defines binge drinking.

Most drinking is at parties "because that's what everybody's doing," said Celia Cummings, a senior, at a recent club meeting.

Some drink to temporarily escape from academic pressure; others for bragging rights or perceived status, the teens said.

"Omigod you fell down and broke your leg," said Sarah Early, imitating an admiring comment. "So cool."

Early, an eighth grader at Twin Hills Middle School in Sebastopol, joined Operation 1-4-1 two years ago. She had her first drink at 13 at a friend's house, but stopped there.

"I knew the kid was bad news," she said.

Younger teens may binge from lack of experience, said Scott Brandenburg, a junior. "They're naive. They just do it and don't think they will be affected," he said.

Scarlet Trippsmith, a freshman, put it bluntly: "Teens drink just to get drunk."

So did a U.S. Surgeon General's "Call to Action" report in 2007 that said: "Underage drinking is deeply embedded in American culture, is often viewed as a rite of passage ... and has proved stubbornly resistant to change."

It listed a litany of alcohol-related hazards to underage drinkers:

-- About 5,000 deaths a year, including 1,900 from vehicle crashes, 1,600 from homicides and 300 from suicides.

-- Risky sexual behavior resulting in unplanned pregnancies and diseases including HIV.

-- Alterations in the structure and function of the brain, which continues to develop into the mid to late 20s.

-- Risk of heavy drinking later in life, leading to major diseases such as cancer and stroke, as well as addiction, which is four times more likely among those who start drinking at 15 compared with those who wait until age 21.

Binge drinking is epidemic nationwide, with about 6.9 million youth ages 12 to 20 reporting it in 2009, the Health and Human Services report said.

Nearly all of the alcohol (92 percent) consumed by 12- to 14-year-olds is through binging, and recent data showed that 12 percent of underage drinkers had nine or more drinks during their last episode, the report said.

Garric, who coordinates the Project Success Plus countywide, said the program has made a dent in local teen drinking habits.

Binge drinking by seventh, ninth and 11th graders dropped between the 2007 and 2011 surveys, a trend that Garric said "looks like steady progress."

Drinking in the past 30 days by seventh graders fell by half: from 14 percent in 2007 to 7 percent in 2011.

One of the major risk factors — driving a car after drinking or riding with a drinking driver — dropped among 11th graders from 31 percent in 2007 to 24 percent in 2011.

Garric said that was evidence of "getting kids through their teen years safer," but that 24 percent is "still too high."

But she and Newman-Fields remain concerned by the rate of regular alcohol consumption that triples between seventh and ninth grades (from 7 percent to 22 percent).

Some of that is inevitable as teens grow older and gain more independence, Garric said. "But we can definitely do better."

McCracken, the Analy student group advisor, said teens still deflect the risks of alcohol with a simple response: "Okay, Mr. M., that's not going to happen to me."

The peer-to-peer message needs to reach even lower than middle school, McCracken said. "We need to be in the fifth and sixth grades."

Zac Parenti agrees. "It's the sad truth," he said. "We really can't change what's happening at the high school level."

Peter Rumble, director of health policy for the Sonoma County Department of Health Services, said the peer counseling approach is likely the best bet.

"It's one thing for us to talk about," he said. "It's another if it's coming from the kids."