Town hall meeting addresses underage drinking

Local teens and city officials on Tuesday gathered to remind the community that, while alcohol usage may be declining among youth, underage drinking remains a problem.

It’s a $62 billon-a-year problem nationwide, according to Wichita Mayor Carol Brewer.

It’s one that he and others who spoke during a town hall meeting on the topic agree is preventable.

“Underage drinking disrupts and derails our lives,” said Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams, who addressed an audience of about 30 teens and adults at City Hall.

“It’s very troubling that not only does this disrupt the development of the human mind,” but those who start drinking young also are more likely to become alcoholics, she said.

Slides and a 15-minute video called “This Place” shown during the meeting revealed what panelists called troubling statistics.

Four in 10 alcoholics started drinking before age 15.

About 1,700 college students die annually in alcohol-related incidents.

Daily, 7,000 children under age 16 drink their first alcoholic beverage.

Alcohol use is associated with other risky behaviors, such as drug use, unprotected sex and suicide.

“The earlier we can begin prevention work, the better off we are,” Vice Mayor Janet Miller said.

Teens say alcohol is easy to get: from friends and older siblings. Even parents contribute to the problem.

“A lot of them (parents) take the approach that ‘I did it when I was a kid.’ Well times are different,” said Wichita police Officer Michael Lloyd, program coordinator of Juvenile Underage Drinking Group Education/Enforcement, a local initiative to reduce alcohol use among children and teens. “Now at an underage drinking a party someone is more likely to pull out a weapon rather than going outside to throw a few punches.”

He added, addressing teens in the audience: “You’re the ones who can talk to the adults and get a different perspective. They don’t want to hear it from me or the city council members. They want to hear it from you.”

Maize High School junior Lauren Appenfeller, another speaker, told the crowd that messages focused on the negative effects of underage drinking are helpful. But students want to hear the positives of avoiding alcohol, too.

“The trends have actually been going down on the number of students who have had any sort of alcohol in their lifetime,” the 17-year-old said, citing statistics gathered over the last decade.

“I think that makes it a lot easier to … decline alcohol if you know most of the students aren’t doing it.”

The town hall meeting was hosted by the Mayor’s Youth Council, a group of about 30 area high school students interested in local government, volunteering and health.

Other speakers Tuesday were Stephanie Quick, a supervisor with Wichita schools’ safety services department; Power 93.9 DJ and program director Greg “The Hitman” Williams; and Jason Verbeckmoes of Mirror Inc.

“We’ll continue having this discussion,” Williams told the audience in closing, “because we are planting the seeds: The seeds of change.”