Nearly half of Mesa’s teens drink alcohol — and many of them took their first sip before they turned 13.
But the most disturbing trend, officials say, is that 20 percent of high school seniors obtained their alcohol from the very people who should keep it away from them — their parents.
In Mesa, the number of parents and guardians purchasing alcohol for their teens is 5 percent higher than the state average of 15 percent, said Karen Frias-Long, executive director of the Mesa Prevention Alliance. The data is gathered through the Arizona Youth Survey, which is administered to thousands of eighth graders and high school students every year.
“There are parents who will tell us ‘I’d rather them be drinking at home, than drinking and driving and being somewhere else,” Frias-Long said.
While the Mesa Prevention Alliance knows that stopping underage drinking would be impossible, the group is trying to lower the number of youth who drink through a series of prevention efforts that go beyond the teens and actually focus on their parents and other adults.
In the coming weeks, the Tribune will examine these efforts, their impact and how the community can get involved to make a difference. From an undercover operation outside stores called Shoulder Tapping to a special program with law enforcement called Party Patrols, the Mesa Prevention Alliance aims to tackle the problem with the local community’s help.
“Any time you have someone abusing alcohol it’s bad, but any time you have someone who is not legal abusing alcohol, it’s worse,” said Mesa Mayor Scott Smith.
The alliance, which was founded in 2008 by behavioral health provider Community Bridges, works with schools, churches, parents, youth, nonprofit groups, police, businesses and elected officials to raise awareness and affect change, Frias-Long said. Grants from the Office of National Drug Control Policy and Magellan Health Services fund the program.
With the primary goal of reducing youth alcohol use in Mesa, the group places stickers on convenience store beer refrigerators, fans parent and teen pledges out to schools, holds community education events, partners with law enforcement and educates government leaders on underage drinking and other drug use among teens
The alliance itself is small — with two chairs, four staff, 17 adult members representing various private, non-profit and government sectors and about 20 teen leaders — but the group has tackled big issues, such as the 2011 passing of a city ordinance that focused to reducing beer thefts at convenience stores, Frias-Long said. Most beer thefts are committed by teens and young adults under 21, who run into a store and flee with beer. The ordinances required stores to secure the beer and keep it further from the store’s entrance.
“We had a lot of discussions about underage drinking at that time and we said we’d help them out,” Smith said.
Frias-Long said the next ordinance the alliance is researching is a Social Host Ordinance, like the one that went into effect in the City of Tempe in February 2012. Smith said Mesa has not yet experienced a “real problem” that would prompt them to pass a Social Host Ordinance, but the issue is under review.
“We are certainly very much aware of the fact that it could be a problem and we want to stay in front of it,” Smith said. “It’s something that’s being looked at by staff and may be submitted to a Council committee.”
Smith said he appreciates the work the Mesa Prevention Alliance does in the community, especially the youth program called Alliance of Leaders Against Drugs which uses teen volunteers to spread the message about the dangers of underage drinking.
“It’s kids talking to kids and teenagers trying to be involved in their community,” Smith said.
Marc Beasley, recreation coordinator for the Red Mountain Center and advisory board member for the Mesa Prevention Alliance said he would like to see the alliance also bring in college students to speak to teens, since they are a bit older and could serve as role models for high school students.
“Sometimes kids like to hear it from their peers,” Beasley said. “Hearing it from a 46-year-old man is not cool.”
Teen program member and Mesa High School student Viridiana Lopez, 17, has been a volunteer with the alliance for two years and has spoken to incoming high school freshman, mentored classmates and met with youth during community events. Lopez said that speaking in front of her peers about the dangers of drinking alcohol has been both challenging and rewarding.
“It was scary at first, but then I felt more comfortable because there were teen leaders who helped me through it,” Lopez said.
Lopez said that one of her main goals in talking with her peers is helping them understand refusal skills to help make it easier for them to decline drinking alcohol or using other drugs.
“Alcohol will always be an issue because it’s the number one abused drug, but the trends change,” Frias-Long said. “The coalition is really about keeping our youth healthy.”