Pilot project on underage drinking brings a positive spin
By Anne Polta, West Central Tribune
Published Monday, December 29, 2008

OLIVIA — Most of the teenaged students at Renville County West don’t think it’s OK to get drunk.
They’re less sure, however, when it comes to what they believe their peers think. Narrowing the gap between perception and reality is the idea behind a new social marketing campaign that’s being piloted in 12 Minnesota school districts, among them Renville County West and Yellow Medicine East. Ultimately, the goal is to reduce underage alcohol use and access to alcohol by changing community norms.

“This is a whole different type of prevention,” said Annie Tepfer, coordinator of the Renville Alliance for the Prevention of Alcohol and Drugs.

“We are not going down that road of blaming who is at fault. What we really want to do is celebrate good healthy behaviors and point that out as a role model,” she said. “We want to take the science and the evidence that we’ve found and our passion for this, and then we want to take action.”
The campaign, called Most of Us, was developed at Montana State University, using research that found the majority of young people don’t abuse alcohol but they think — inaccurately — that many other youths do.

“Most kids overestimate the extent to which their peers are using alcohol. Once they know the facts — that their peers aren’t all using alcohol — they cut their alcohol use because they want to be like the biggest share of the crowd,” said Carol Falkowski, director of the chemical health division at the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

The Most of Us strategy has already been introduced, with some success, in Montana, Missouri and Wyoming, and in Europe and Canada. In Minnesota, it’s being funded by the Department of Human Services chemical health division, with plans to expand it beyond the 12 pilot school districts in upcoming years.

The first phase — surveying students about drinking-related behavior and perceptions — took place this past year.

Now the participating school districts are starting to take action, using data collected from their own teens.

For instance, the week before homecoming this fall, postcards arrived in the mailboxes of Renville County West parents with the message that “78 percent of RCW students believe that their parents should communicate the importance of not using alcohol and drugs to them.”

Talk to your kids about drug and alcohol use, because they’re listening, the postcard urged.

A student group at RCW has been formed to plan activities and set priorities. Students have hosted town hall meetings to share the Most of Us survey findings. They’re helping to select posters and tape radio ads.

Look for a media campaign that’ll be waged over the next three years in each of the pilot school districts. Periodic surveys will help gauge whether there’s any measurable change in student attitudes and behaviors.

The pilot school districts also will be looking at ways to make these strategies sustainable once the funding ends.

It might mean building the social-marketing message into school curriculums, for instance, or creating a community education program to help parents set guidelines on teen drinking.

The positive spin on the message might take some getting used to, Tepfer said. Kids were “a little bit leery at first,” she said. She’s also anticipating some skepticism from adults.

Research is finding, however, that scare tactics have little impact on youths, she said. “It seems to scare parents more. Kids are invincible. They really don’t think it’s going to happen to them. We’re trying to squash the negative messages that are being sent, that have been sent, to our communities regarding underage alcohol use. This is an environmental approach. We are not concentrating on individuals and individual behavior. We are looking at community norms.”