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Alcohol violations among youth trending downward in Pennsylvania

Among Pennsylvania’s population of underage drinkers, it’s the sixth-graders who concern Felicity DeBacco-Erni the most.

Many are just 11 years old.

“What kind of high are they going to need by the time they’re in eighth grade, by the time they’re in 10th grade, by the time they’re in 12th grade?” asked DeBacco-Erni, director of Pennsylvanians Against Underage Drinking. “We’re talking about a public health issue.”

Three percent of Pennsylvania’s sixth-graders reported drinking alcohol in the past 30 days, according to the Pennsylvania Youth Survey, and more than 13 percent in 2013 reported drinking at least once in their lifetime.

Recently released statistics from Pennsylvania State Police show liquor law violations are down overall by more than 5,000 offenses in the past five years. Maj. Thomas Butler, who heads the state police Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement, said the majority of the offenses are underage drinking charges.

The Uniform Crime Report, compiled by state police and released in December, showed 12,527 liquor law violations in 2013, a 13.3 percent decrease from 14,452 in 2012 and a 29 percent drop from 17,731 in 2009.

“As the statistics trend down, it’s really the underage drinking arrests that are trending down,” Butler said.

His department focuses on policing violations for licensees, but they occasionally are called in as backup for large-scale enforcement issues on holidays or events, he said.

The reasons behind the decline are murky, a mixed result of changes in youth behaviors and in enforcement. It could be attributed, in part, to the work of advocates and educators to urge teenagers not to drink, DeBacco-Erni said.

“I would hope that, in fact, the programs, the policies, the changes that have been made over the past several years have done what we expect them to do, and this is the result of that,” DeBacco-Erni said.

Among sixth-graders, who self-reported alcohol use in the Pennsylvania Youth Survey from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, alcohol abuse figures are trending downward, from 5 percent in the past 30 days in 2011 to 3 percent in 2013. But lifetime use was up in 2012 among 10th- and 12th-graders.

Municipalities are targeting underage drinking, which could explain some of the decline, DeBacco-Erni said. She cited policies at Penn State University for State Patty’s Day, an unofficial alcohol-centered holiday on St. Patrick’s Day during which the university compensates businesses that agree not to sell alcohol.

Another factor for the decline is that minors who are caught drinking sometimes receive a citation for disorderly conduct instead of underage drinking, she said.

Underage drinking is punishable with a fine of as much as $500 for a first offense, or $1,000 for a second, along with a driver’s license suspension.

Compared with national averages, Pennsylvania has a larger percentage of teens who drink. Lifetime alcohol use was 7.3 percentage points higher in Pennsylvania for the eighth grade compared with national rates, 9.4 points higher for 10th grade and 6 points higher for the 12th grade.

“Their chance of becoming addicted to the substance increases dramatically the younger they are trying alcohol,” DeBacco-Erni said.

Police departments’ policies sometimes differ on handling underage drinking, according to Officer Daniel Baldwin, president of the Pennsylvania D.A.R.E. Officers Association. And officer discretion plays a role, Baldwin said, with strict enforcement if the offender is driving.

The decline in underage drinking violations also could be attributed to education efforts or a cultural change, said Baldwin, an officer in Dauphin County.

“Everywhere you go now, it’s not as commonly accepted as it used to be,” he said. “Businesses are cracking down. They just don’t see it as often.”

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or [email protected].


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