GAITHERSBURG—The Department of Liquor Control (DLC) in Montgomery County is providing simple ways to combat underage drinking.
According to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, drinking remains the most common risky behavior for young people when compared with using tobacco, marijuana and other drugs.
Kathie Durbin, who serves as the chief of the Licensure, Regulation and Education Department in the DLC, explained that alcohol is especially risky for people who start drinking before the age of 21.
“We know that young people, if they start drinking at a younger age, that they have a higher percentage, about four to five times the likelihood, of having substance abuse or alcohol issues as an adult,” Durbin said.
On average, according to information from the Behavioral Health Administration’s Drug and Alcohol Department, kids in the United States are usually around 12 when they have their first alcoholic drink.
Montgomery County and Maryland on the whole is unique when it comes to policies surrounding access to alcohol, according to Dr. Elyse Grossman, who studies alcohol and drug policy at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The state of Maryland allows its each county to decide if it should have controlled jurisdiction — that is, whether or not the county will have a monopoly over the sale or distribution of alcohol.
Many state legislatures make that decision at the state level as opposed to the local level.
“The harm with alcohol comes when there’s accessibility and excess,” Grossman said. “With the control system we have in Montgomery County, we have generally slightly fewer stores (selling alcohol), and operating hours of those stores are reduced.”
Other preventative measures, such as education, helps control and prevent high rates of alcohol abuse, according to Durbin.
“The younger you start educating people, the better informed they are, and of course, that leads them to making better choices,” she said.
Durbin explained that a big part of her work with the DLC is outreach about the risks associated with alcohol.
One of the simplest ways the DLC helps to prevent alcohol sales to minors is through its calendars.
The DLC distributes paper calendars to nearly 1,100 alcohol license holders in Montgomery County. The calendars include a section with information about checking IDs, which can be torn off and kept at hand in places like a checkout counter or cash register.
Emily DeTitta, who serves as the marketing manager at the DLC, explained that the calendars provide a quick way to check dates and do rapid mental math to make sure a potential buyer of alcohol is as old as they claim to be.
The calendars are a free resource for license holders in Montgomery County and are funded through small grants that the DLC applies for. The calendars also have information about regulatory tips, training schedules and important licensing dates.
Another way the DLC engages in preventative measures against underage drinking is through resources such as Responsibility.org.
“It’s a really great website that works with programs for young people as well as adults,” Durbin said.
Responsibility.org is run by The Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility; it provides up-to-date information about alcohol consumption and drunk driving.
The foundation also provides online resources, such as short informational videos, infographics, and advice about starting conversations about alcohol with other people.
“We believe it is every parent’s responsibility to have a positive impact on their child’s decisions about alcohol and respect the same right of other parents,” the foundation wrote in its mission statement. “We believe conversations about alcohol should begin early and last a lifetime.”
The DLC also works to enforce liquor laws, which includes underage volunteers who check to see if businesses sell to minors. The department recognizes that alcohol sellers are the first line of defense to limit the availability of alcohol to people under the age of 21, according to the department’s 2017 Compliance Check Program report.
“Our sales to minors compliance program is very comprehensive,” Durbin said. “We looked at models from all over the country and created this really strong protocol for training each underage individual that will work in the program.”
Accompanied by a police officer, these underage volunteers attempt to purchase alcohol with their own IDs. If the seller does not ask to see an ID or if it’s obvious that the seller saw an ID that clearly stated an individual was underraged, the business may be subject to a hefty fine, according to Durbin. “That can be about $1,000, depending on how many times they have failed the program.”
Underage drinking is still a problem in the United States, Grossman said. But statistics show that from 2016 to 2017, the number of alcohol-related deaths went down slightly in Maryland.
“I think underage drinking is often overlooked. But it’s an area that you can really make a difference in putting in good policy for prevention and early treatment,” she said. “And you know that you’re actually making a difference.”