State holds community forums on underage drinking

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(Host) April is Alcohol Awareness month.

The state is using the occasion to underscore Vermont’s problem with underage drinking by holding a series of community forums on the issue.

VPR’s Steve Zind has the story of one Vermont teen who’s battling a drinking problem.

(Zind) In a recent risk assessment survey by the Vermont Department of Health, 38% of the state’s 8th through 12th graders responding said they had consumed alcohol in the past thirty days. More than one in five students in the survey admitted to binge drinking: consuming five or more drinks in a one hour period.

Until five weeks ago, those numbers included seventeen-year-old Megan McOwen.

McOwen and her mother agreed to share her story.

McOwen’s history of substance abuse is a numbing trajectory of increasing drug and alcohol use that began when she was thirteen. She tried numerous drugs, but alcohol remained a constant.

McOwen and her mother moved to Vermont from Washington State eight months ago. It didn’t take long for McOwen to find friends to drink with.

She says every day she brought a water bottle full of alcohol to her Chittenden County High School.

(McOwen) “I was getting drunk at 7:30 in the morning and trying to come and do my homework.”

(Zind) School officials eventually caught McOwen and suspended her. She says few students at her high school drank as much as she did. Nonetheless, she was surprised at how prevalent alcohol use is.

(McOwen) “Absolutely. I mean kids that I hadn’t even have suspected come up to me and I buy alcohol from them at school. And I’m like, ‘are you kidding me?’. Because they’re from really rich families and they play sports and they don’t smoke cigarettes and they don’t get in trouble with the law. And they drink.”

(Zind) The health department says alcohol is the number one substance abuse problem for Vermont’s young people.

(Cimaglio) “This is not always a harmless right of passage.”

(Zind) Barbara Cimaglio is director of the health department’s alcohol and drug abuse division. Cimaglio says people who start drinking under the age of 15 are five times more likely to develop alcohol problems as adults.

She says the series of town hall meeting being held around the state through April is intended to stimulate community discussions about the problem.

She’s heartened that young people have been coming to the meetings that have been held so far. Cimaglio says adults are important role models but involving young people is also key to addressing the underage drinking problem.

(Cimaglio) “Young people listen to their peers a lot more closely than they listen to adults sometimes, especially in messages like this.”

(Zind) Megan McOwen hopes other young people will listen to her story. She learned the hard way, nearly dying before a friend found her lying in a snow bank on a frigid night last winter – passed out from drinking. Now she’s getting treatment.

(McOwen) “I know that this is it. This is my turning point. You can’t keep drinking that much and live.”

(Zind) McOwen is in a Bradford treatment facility until May. From there she’ll go to a halfway house until she’s 18.

She says she dreams of becoming a writer someday.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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