Binge drinking: Denver youth drink more than the state and national average

Ask yourself, right now, how often you down five drinks (or more) in a single sitting. Answer honestly. Depending on what you decided, you might be a binge drinker.

The good news here is that you're not alone. The bad news is that Denver's youth population is joining you.

According to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which used the five-drink standard of measurement for its national testing in 2008, 46 percent of Denver eleventh graders binge at least once a month. Although the data is now three years outdated, the comparison has compelled a somewhat delayed campaign devoted to lowering those odds. For the same category, the state average is 30 percent of eleventh graders, while the national average is 28 percent, a full 18 percent higher than Denver.

The general numbers are also significant: While 60 percent of Denver's eleventh graders acknowledged alcohol consumption, the state and national average hovered at 46 percent. Counting middle school students as well, one-third of the city's youth reported imbibing.

In response, the Denver Office of Drug Strategy began brainstorming in the fall of 2009 and spent approximately the last two years creating a campaign targeted at the data, which will be replaced in 2012 when the next round of the survey is conducted this fall.

The campaign is meager, so far, but ambitious: In addition to an elevated online presence for the Denver Resource For Awareness and Prevention (Denver RAP), the office supporting the initiative, the campaign has taken to the airwaves. Local radio spots began promoting anti-binge-drinking advertisements in August, and the messages, like the campaign strategy, blend cheesy with serious: Local teens read written lines about things they've done right -- sports, academia, chores around the house -- in order to denounce what is wrong with their peers: binge drinking.

"We recognize that we need to be reaching out to both parents and youth, and we're focused on both making raising awareness and showing that other kids are doing great things with their lives instead," says Vanessa Fenley, director of the Denver Office of Drug Strategy. The campaign launched significantly later than the data that provoked it, she admits, and it is adapting to two years of lost time. "At the end of the radio spots, they state pretty clearly that they don't have time to waste by drinking. It's a direct message."

Since the radio spots started, Denver RAP has maintained and developed a strategic list of partner organizations in response to pleas from concerned moms and dads. "We get regular calls from parents saying, 'I think my child needs help. Where should I turn?'" Fenley says.

The answer isn't always Denver RAP, though the organization is happy to point in the direction of other nonprofits. For those who already show signs of a problem, the answer is Metro Crisis Services. For others, the solution varies. Denver RAP is supported by a five-year grant for the Colorado Prevention Partners for Success, which guarantees $400,000 each year in funds from the federal substance abuse and mental health division. For the fiscal year, $30,000 of that grant went to the anti-binge drinking media campaign.

Although organizers don't plan to give the campaign further time off to prepare for the next survey's results, they plan to tailor the program's strategies to the results.

If the numbers decrease, how will they decipher whether it was a result of efforts that officially launched three years after the last survey? "It's tough to predict," Fenley says. Once completed, the data won't be released at the national level until the spring or summer at the earliest. "We're looking forward to see what that data shows. It gives us a way to reevaluate what we're doing and see what kind of impact we've had so far, to see if we're doing the right thing."

More from our Education archives: "WeCar: DU sustainable-transportation program surpasses expectations in first week."

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Kelsey Whipple
Contact: Kelsey Whipple