NC: Underage Drinking a ‘Terrific Problem’ in North Carolina
By Blake Hodge
November 24, 2015
Cases of underage drinking made for a long meeting of the state Alcohol Beverage Control Commission last Wednesday.
The case against La Res was the main draw for attention. The Chapel Hill restaurant and bar was investigated for its role in the fatal wrong-way crash on I-85 in July.
Records show Chandler Kania, a 20-year-old UNC student, and a group of underage friends were served alcohol at La Res hours before police say Kania drove the wrong-way on I-85 for at least six miles before crashing into another vehicle head-on, killing three of the four passengers.
But after the ABC board meeting, chair James Gardner said, rather than focusing on one infraction, he was more disappointed with the frequency of underage drinking cases the commission hears. Of the 122 offers in compromise ratified on Wednesday, Gardner said two-thirds of them involved underage drinking.
He added the commission is now in the second phase of a mission to curb what some consider a public health risk.
“The first phase was to bring everybody’s attention to the fact that underage drinking in this state is a terrific problem,” Gardner says. “The second phase is to try to get parents and the middle school children to talk together about what the problem is.”
Gardner said it is important to get the message to those middle school students and parents to start the education process. But he added training servers and reminding them of their responsibilities was another key spoke in the fight against underage drinking.
“This is especially true in all of our college towns,” Gardner says. “We have trained over 4,000 permit holders [and] servers this year. And we will continue to do it into next year, going into every college town in the state of North Carolina.”
Gardner said with the training that is offered by state and local officials, enforcement efforts will also be increased.
“With ALE and the local ABC enforcements, we have stepped up our activities in trying – in particular in college towns across the state – to see that every permit holder in the state of North Carolina understands that it is their responsibility not to serve anybody under 21 years old.”
More than $200,000 in fines were brought in at the November meeting alone as part of the more than 120 offers in compromise agreed to by businesses across the state and the ABC Commission.
Gardner said the commission has brought in more than $800,000 throughout the year and anticipates nearly $1 million in fines by year’s end. He added that money is redistributed to local schools across the state. Wherever the violation occurred, that school district receives the funding.
Of the 120-plus offers agreed to, 22 of those establishments that were fined for not being in compliance were located in Orange County.
Businesses that sell alcohol in Orange County are facing nearly $44,000 in fines or having their alcohol permits suspended for 439 days, collectively. Those numbers are just related to the November board meeting of the state Alcohol Beverage Control Commission.
Chapel Hill Police Lieutenant Josh Mecimore says the department has an investigator whose primary role is as a liaison between local police and the state Alcohol Law Enforcement and the ABC Commission.
“A big part of his role is organizing those alert operations where we do either compliance checks or we might have officers out doing loud party patrols during specific times of year,” Mecimore says. “Frequently those center around prom season and graduation time for the high school, graduation time for the university.”
Seven of 34 Chapel Hill businesses checked in August during a compliance sweep were cited for selling alcohol to an underage patron.
“Those underage buyers are using their own ID,” Mecimore says. “It’s not like they have a fake ID that says they are over 21. They have their ID that says that they are 19 or however old they are.
“So they either didn’t check the ID at all or they checked it, it says that the person is under 21 and they still served them.”
That failure rate is actually an improvement over checks in recent years.
Mecimore says businesses included in compliance checks are made up of a combination of random selections and businesses that were previously cited.
Mecimore says Chapel Hill Police have a multifaceted effort against alcohol-related incidents. But he adds, in a college town, underage drinking is a major focus.
“I regularly tell people the reason for that is far less about what the legal drinking age is and far more about what we see as a result of people either over-consuming or irresponsibly-consuming alcohol.”
Mecimore says police see many cases where a suspect and victim have consumed alcohol, including physical assaults and sexual assaults.
Jim Wise is the student assistance program specialist at Chapel Hill High School and the lead in that role for all middle and high schools across the district. Wise says there is coordination with local police and schools for enforcement and education.
“We’ll do more of that with the high school,” Wise says. “Bring [police] in for events around safe driving, impaired driving. But we’ll do legal education. They come in, they’ll present in driver’s education classes for instance.
“The traffic officers will come [and] they’ll talk about safe driving, but they’ll talk about all of the issues around impairment and distracted driving.”
Wise says education about drinking starts in middle school health classes and continues until graduation.
“The one piece that really seems to resound and be effective with young people is to talk to them about brain development, brain biology and how use, especially at young ages, can affect the development of their brains,” Wise says. “And with such a premium put on education in this community, it’s a message that doesn’t just resonate with young people.
“But it also resonates with parents, staff and pretty much any community member.”
Wise says Chapel Hill – Carrboro City Schools conducts its own survey every two years regarding underage drinking in high schools across the district. Wise says, in 2013, 32 percent of high school students responded they had consumed an alcoholic beverage in the last 30 days. Wise says that number is down three percent from 2011. But Wise says he is more disturbed that 17 percent of students responded they did binge drink, which is consuming five or more alcoholic drinks in one sitting. He says that number has not changed much in recent years.
“One of the powerful things is, since this is our data, the students can’t say, ‘Well that’s those kids in Georgia or North Dakota,’” Wise says. “We can say, ‘No, this is what you and your peers said you’re doing.’
“So we really do feel like this is accurate and local information that we can do something with.”
Wise says it is important for parents to be involved in the conversation with their school-aged children and for parents to avoid glorifying past bad decisions.
“But to be able to say, ‘This happened and it was scary,’” Wise says. “Because I think we all have personal stories of people we may have grown up with we know who had some really scary, impactful things happen to them because of involvement and decisions they made around alcohol use or other substance use.”
Wise says he expects new data related to underage drinking gathered this spring.