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Ohio Panel Tackles Underage Access to Alcohol

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Community leaders in Lucas County, Ohio are currently working to implement a series of recommendations developed by a policy panel on underage access to alcohol, released in October after an exhaustive, 19-month process.

Following on the success of national policy panels convened by Join Together, and similar regional panels such as those organized in Franklin County, Ohio, by Join Together Fellow Bill Crimi, the Lucas County Community Prevention Partnership decided to use the panel approach to address one of the area’s biggest substance abuse problems — underage drinking. “The availability of alcohol is where this problem begins,” according to the Partnership.

According to the Partnership’s 1998 compliance check program, 45 percent of Lucas County alcohol retailers failed to check IDs of young buyers. “These numbers are unacceptable,” the group noted.

The 18-member panel, co-chaired by Toledo City Councilman Louis Escobar and Lucas County Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services Board director Jay Salvage, held three public hearings to take input from the community on addressing the problem of youth access, then held three additional closed meetings to boil the input down into a series of policy recommendations. Deacon Dzierzawski, executive director of the Lucas County Community Partnership, estimates that about 60 percent of the recommendations were a direct result of the testimony given at the public hearings, while the balance was based on the panel's own discussions and deliberations.

In the end, the panel — which included the board president of the Northwest Ohio Licensed Beverage Association as well as parents, legislators, medical experts, school officials, law enforcement and other community leaders — agreed on a concrete set of environmental action steps to tackle underage drinking, calling for:

  • Clear, consistent enforcement of liquor laws, including giving local law enforcement the power to cite retailers, increased compliance checks, and more use of researched-based prevention programs, such as Cops in Shops. Dzierzawski noted that the panel called on the state to hold regional hearings on violations, rather than requiring retailers to travel to Columbus to have their case heard.
  • More stringent penalties for persons violating liquor laws, with adults who purchase or provide alcohol for minors receiving the same penalty as a DUI offender, and license revocation for any liquor establishment that violates the underage sales law more than five times in five years. The group also called for mandatory diversion programs for underage drinkers and education for their parents.
  • Alcohol establishments to check ID’s of all persons under the age of 26 before a purchase can be made, mirroring a federal policy recommendation.
  • More stringent regulation of open-air events, including server training, restricted sales areas, and signage requirements mirroring those for other licensed establishments.
  • Mandatory certified training for all employees of alcohol-serving establishments.
  • Mandatory ATOD education for all youth during elementary, middle and high school, as well as for all incoming university/college students who are under age 21.
  • Zero tolerance policy for underage alcohol consumption on and off college campuses, including a ban on serving alcohol in dorms with underage residents, increased policing of off-campus housing, and segregated drinking areas at tailgate parties.
  • Fifteen percent of existing alcohol tax revenue to be dedicated to funding ATOD treatment and prevention agencies, and the Ohio Revised Code should be revised to allow local governments to place alcohol or tobacco use taxes on the ballot for taxpayer approval.
  • Creating local grassroots networks among schools, community members and parents to focus on the issues surrounding underage access to alcohol.

Now that the recommendations are on the table, a second task force has been established to shepherd the implementation process. The most “do-able” elements of the panel's policy recommendations were handed off to smaller action groups, said Dzierzawski, and progress will be evaluated in about 18 months.

Thanks to the diverse makeup of the panel, Dzierzawski is confident that many of the recommendations will go from ideas to reality over the next few years. Convincing influential leaders to take part in the panel is one key to success, he tells Join Together; another is to ensure that participants feel included and empowered in the process.

Alcohol sellers, for example, played a crucial role in drafting the recommendations — and will benefit through receipt of grant money to purchase electronic ID checkers. “I was surprised by the frankness of bar owners,” said Dzierzawski. “It just shows that if you get people involved in the issue and give them ownership, you can make things happen.”

Another way to empower your panel is to support them throughout the process, especially with research, says Dzierzawski. “Do as much work as you can on the staff level, so you can free the panel up to just sit and learn,” he says.

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