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Group Focuses on Reducing Teens’ Access to Alcohol, Impact of Ads

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Think of a typical New Year’s Eve shopping list. Confetti, streamers, champagne. The drink and the holiday are almost inseparable.

Think of recent Christmas displays in local stores. Bourbon suddenly pops up in the dairy section, lest shoppers forget their eggnog ingredients.

Alcohol’s pervasive presence, the way it saturates the environment through custom and advertising, is the concern of a new coalition in Moorpark. The group aims to curb local youths’ access to alcohol, along with reducing their exposure to advertising and media messages that promote drinking or the use of other drugs.

The Moorpark Coalition is one of 11 groups throughout Ventura County that have applied for county grants to launch such efforts. Although the focus of each organization is different, all seek to reduce alcohol- and drug-related problems by changing conditions within their communities.

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That can mean passing ordinances limiting the hours in which alcohol can be sold or restricting the space local storefronts can devote to beer ads.

“Rather than looking at individuals and trying to get them to change, you look at the whole environment,” said Sharon O’Hara of the county’s Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs.

In Moorpark, coalition members, including representatives from the local school district and the police, began meeting during the summer to hash out ideas. Marilyn Green, special projects coordinator for the school district, said that at first members had a difficult time stepping beyond their own notions of how to fight alcohol or drug use.

“For example, the school district traditionally would look at this from an educational point of view--how to say no, how to choose a healthy lifestyle,” she said. “The police look at it from a different angle--the prosecution of criminal activity. So what the county was asking us to do was step back and look at it a different way.”

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In particular, the county wanted to change the emphasis of local drug and alcohol prevention efforts. In the past, those efforts focused on individual education, trying to teach people to avoid alcohol. County officials wanted to foster communitywide changes in the availability of alcohol and other drugs.

The idea, O’Hara said, is the same as fighting drunk driving by raising the drinking age or cutting tobacco-related illness by banning smoking in public places. Such changes, she said, seem to be more effective than educational programs, especially with children growing up in a culture that often views drinking as a rite of passage into adulthood.

“If a kid leaves school and walks past all these messages in the community, that it’s OK to drink . . . those messages are much stronger with kids than any school-based program could ever hope to be,” O’Hara said.

After six months of meetings, the Moorpark Coalition drafted a package of proposals that would fight teen alcohol use through city regulations, law enforcement and voluntary programs involving local shopkeepers. The proposals include:

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* Forming citizens groups to monitor stores that have a reputation for selling alcohol without checking identification. Teens surveyed by the coalition said that some of Moorpark’s 34 stores licensed to sell alcohol rarely ask for an ID. Green said the coalition would draw up a list of such stores and station volunteer monitors nearby during weekend evenings.

* Offering training sessions to store employees, teaching them the laws governing alcohol sales.

* Conducting police “stings” of stores suspected of selling to minors.

* Lobbying the City Council to restrict the amount of a store’s window space that can be devoted to alcohol advertising.

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* Asking local radio stations to voluntarily decrease their alcohol advertising and prohibit pro-drug comments during programming targeted at teens.

Other groups applying for the county grants have come up with similar ideas. In Ventura, the Community Partners group wants to focus its attention on local stores, examining the steps they take to ensure that alcoholic goods don’t fall into the hands of children.

The Santa Paula Health Action Coalition wants to restrict advertising, with Chairwoman Melitta Haslund noting that some children march past beer ads each day on their way to school.

“Budweiser is well-represented in Santa Paula,” she said.

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Haslund, a Unitarian Universalist minister, said the group will also ask local ministers to talk to their congregations about the example parents should set regarding alcohol use.

Each group was allowed to apply for a maximum of $50,000 per year for three years, Green said. The county will award the grants in mid-January.

In the meantime, Moorpark group members will continue individually counseling teens to avoid alcohol, even if the holiday season encourages otherwise. Gabino Aguirre, principal of Moorpark’s continuation high school and a member of the coalition, said he has learned over time that drinking on New Year’s Eve is a poor decision.

“I’ve realized it doesn’t make sense to start out the new year sicker than a dog,” he said.

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