Saturday morning’s "Sticker Shock" campaign marked the end of Drug and Alcohol Addiction Recovery Awareness Month in Alexandria, but it was also the kickoff event for the city’s newly-formed Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition.
Forty or so people of all ages gathered in the parking lot of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control on Montgomery Street to hear a few words and then disperse with rolls of stickers in hand. The stickers, bearing an exhortation to prevent underage drinking and warning of the penalties for providing alcohol to minors, would be slapped onto packages containing alcoholic beverages at 46 participating stores in the city.
Mayor William Euille, honorary chair of the coalition, expressed his pleasure that many youth were participating in the campaign. "You are really the most important part of this coalition," he told them. "We know that teenagers listen to their peers and look to them for advice."
Describing the problem that the city faces, he cited statistics from a recent survey taken in Alexandria schools, which showed that almost 30 percent of seventh-graders and more than 60 percent of high school seniors drink alcohol, including 10 percent of seventh-graders and one-fourth of 12th-graders who binge drink. Some of these youths obtain their alcohol from adults, who Euille said the stickers would remind of the "stiff penalties" they could face.
"We have a significant problem here in Alexandria," said coalition Chair Cate Alexander Brennan. "Underage drinking has gone from being seen as a rite of passage – that’s r-i-t-e – to being something many teens consider a right – that’s r-i-g-h-t," she said. Alexander Brennan told the crowd that the law against underage drinking is not only important because it is a law, but because it is designed for the safety of the community and its young people. "It takes one person to make a difference," she said. "We have enough people to make a movement."
Amina Uwwais, a T.C. Williams High School student and coalition member, reminded those present that working to prevent adults from buying alcohol for minors was not a one-day event but an ongoing effort. "We need to let people know we’re serious," she said.
AFTER THE SPEECHES, as the sticker bearers headed out in all directions, Alexander Brennan explained: "Best practices have been created to prevent underage substance abuse, and most of those have to do with changing the environment." She said this meant changing the attitudes of parents, schools, law enforcement and retailers to "send a message that underage substance abuse is not acceptable."
Citing a study by the National Institutes of Health, she said children who drink before the age of 15 are 40 percent more likely to become dependent on alcohol. "I just don’t think those are odds that parents want to give their kids," she said.
The Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition grew out of the Partnership for a Healthier Alexandria, which was created last year in reaction to the city’s Community Health Assessment in 2004. The coalition includes parents and children, as well as representatives from a variety of public, private and faith-based groups. Its focus is on youth substance use and abuse.
Alexander Brennan noted that the coalition has already joined the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, which is headquartered in Alexandria. "We see ourselves as just getting started," she said.