Teens will be heading into liquor stores this holiday season to see if lax merchants will sell them alcohol despite their underage status.
In this case the endeavor isn’t part of teenage rebellion — it’s an effort orchestrated by a Sandoval County DWI and Prevention program to pinpoint vendors who might be tempted to overlook an alcohol buyer’s underage status.
Several times a year, high school students volunteering with the DWI program hit up about a dozen establishments at a time that sell alcohol in an attempt to crack down on vendors violating the law by selling to minors.
“We take a minor to go into a store that looks like they’re 21,” DWI and Prevention Executive Administrator Diane Irwin said. “We’ve taken kids that look like they’re 12 years old in there before and (who) have a regular ID — the vertical one — and they go in there and try to purchase alcohol.”
Irwin said when the teens go into the stores they don’t use any tricks — such as fake IDs — to try to get the person behind the counter to sell them alcohol.
“They certainly don’t try to deceive (the sellers),” Irwin said.
Of the 79 establishments in the county that sell alcohol, Irwin said during their checks they occasionally find people selling to minors.
But Irwin said sometimes is still too much.
“It happens more frequently than I’d like to see,” she said.
For example, during Bernalillo’s Wine Festival earlier this year, through one of the program’s checks they caught a vendor selling wine to a minor.
If a business is discovered to have sold alcohol to a minor during one of the DWI Program’s sweeps, Irwin said they report it to the Special Investigative Division of the State Police, which then issues a citation to the store.
Once a business gets three citations, it risks losing its liquor license, according to the state Regulation and Licensing Department. Individuals caught selling alcohol to minors face serving as long as 18 months in jail and paying a $5,000 fine, according to the state Regulation and Licensing Department.
The relatively good news is that children don’t seem to be getting away with buying alcohol in New Mexico. The rates of youth ages 12 to 20 in New Mexico who reported buying their own alcohol were among the lowest in the nation at 2.5 percent, according to statistics compiled from 2008 to 2010 by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
But children don’t always have to try to get alcohol on their own — sometimes parents, perhaps thinking they’ll find the means to get it anyway, buy liquor for their children.
Parents buying alcohol for underage children is one of the themes of a series of new public service announcement videos created by students at Independence High School in Rio Rancho.
Along with the retail establishment checks, the PSAs are part of the DWI Program’s campaign that includes billboards, posters, lectures and other methods intended to help prevent underage drinking.
The video, filmed and edited by the students, shows a smiling mom handing over a case of beer to her underage daughter and telling her to promise to stay home with the alcohol.
As the video shows the teen carrying the beer to a roomful of her underage friends, a voice-over says, “She thinks she’s doing me a favor, but she’s committing a fourth-degree felony … and encouraging a life-long addiction to alcohol.”
More than 450,000 youth in the state ages 17 to 21 see those PSAs each month, according to Nielson figures cited by Irwin.
Irwin said the program focuses its prevention techniques on that age group because “that’s really when the most serious drinking goes on and they get behind the wheel.”
The PSAs, which run monthly 200 to 300 times each on My50-TV and New Mexico’s CW, are part of the media literacy project taught at the high school.
“(The program) looks at how media glamorizes using alcohol,” Irwin said. “Then (the students) try to put a spin on it to get the truth about what’s happening and get statistics about drinking and driving.”
One statistic Irwin cited is particularly troubling: the average age adults involved in DWI treatment programs reported that the first time they’d had a drink was between ages eight and nine years old.
Beginning to drink that early can have far-reaching effects. According to the Centers for Disease Control, children who start drinking before they’re 15 are five times more likely to become alcoholics than those who begin drinking when they’re legal.
Other problems children face when they drink include poor grades; fighting; unwanted, unplanned and unprotected sex; alcohol-related car crashes; and dying from alcohol poisoning.
The latter is the subject of one of the billboards created by Independence High students. The billboard design, one of which is on Interstate 25, displays a teen girl sprawled next to a tipped-over bottle of alcohol under the heading “Alcohol poisoning kills.”
Those working to prevent underage drinking hope that among the 227,000 views the billboard gets weekly from people driving past are teens who will think twice before taking a drink.
People in Sandoval County will be seeing even more billboards at the beginning of next year. Part of an additional $90,000 in funding is going toward a spot on the electronic billboard at Sundt Road and NM 528. Four or five messages with an emphasis on the perils of underage drinking will flash a total of 2,500 times a day on the billboard.
How those messages are approached will continue to be guided by Independence High students, who are the ones most likely to know how to reach their peers, Irwin said.
“Whatever their circumstances are that have happened in their life of how they’ve gotten alcohol, that’s what they usually want to address.”