How one community changed perceptions and curbed underage drinking

Published on
November 3, 2016

Like many communities, Washington state’s Okanogan County struggled with underage drinking.

But the problem wasn’t only the high incidence of teen drinking. Teens there also seemed to think the community didn’t take notice.

That was one finding of a 2010 Washington state survey that found 82 percent of 10th graders there believed that they would not be caught by police if they drank alcohol. While the county’s youth said they knew there were consequences for drinking at school, they seemed to think they could get away with underage drinking elsewhere in the community.

“There was an inherent belief that the community was blasé about underage drinking,” said Andi Ervin, the executive director of the Okanogan County Community Coalition, a group of community members that have been working to reduce youth substance abuse and violence for more than a decade.

The community coalition’s success in changing those perceptions was affirmed this year as part of a Mathematica Policy Research study that evaluated five rural communities in Washington and their ability to reduce the “long-term social, emotional and physical problems related to abuse, neglect and other adverse childhood experiences.”

In a previous post, we took an in-depth look at similar youth health-related efforts in Washington’s Walla Walla County, where organizers helped connect neighbors and reclaimed a local park, among other steps. Okanogan County, which is located in the far north of the state near Canada, focused on improving youth health by tackling the problem of underage drinking — and the perception it was acceptable — in the Omak School District.

Their work is particularly noteworthy because they used systemic, evidence-based monthly surveys that could track alcohol use, said Mathematica’s Natalya Verbitsky-Savitz. As the coalition’s efforts progressed, data showed “youth behavior was changing,” she said. “As a result of the Okanogan community’s efforts, there was a substantial decrease in teen drinking.”

Shifting perceptions

When the Okanogan coalition reviewed police enforcement data, it did not validate teen’s impression that underage drinking was acceptable. In fact, the county was enforcing underage drinking at an even higher level than the state at large; high school students just didn’t realize it.

Similarly, a community survey of parents found nine out of 10 didn’t approve of underage drinking.

To correct teen’s misperceptions, the coalition embarked on a “social norms” campaign. For example, they minimally increased the number of officers, but asked them to make their presence known. “During the time they were doing youth patrols, they were looking for kids and saying hello,” Ervin said. “They did more visible enforcement. They were already enforcing, but the kids didn’t know.”

Along with efforts to increase police visibility, the coalition flooded the local bowling alley, movie theater, the radio and social media with a clear message: underage drinking was not acceptable. They used data to support their communications, such as “9 out of 10 Omak adults do not approve of underage drinking” alongside their coalition’s logo. That message was also posted on coffee cup sleeves and billboards around the area.

In the Omak School District, they advertised the message in yearbooks and at high school sporting events. Coalition members actively updated a Facebook page, frequently posting about drinking-related research, reports, quotes as well as information about family friendly events. They also joined other local groups to offer more community events such as movie nights, town hall meetings, harvest festivals and a Christmas celebration.

A data-driven approach

Data confirmed the coalition’s success in reducing underage drinking. In 2012-13, surveys reported that 77 percent of students had abstained from alcohol in the previous 30 days. A year later, that percentage rose to 87 percent and stayed at that level the next year, a statistically significant 10 percentage point improvement.

The data was also useful in helping the coalition identify specific events that might boost students’ alcohol consumption. Upon reviewing monthly school survey data, they noticed alcohol use soared in May, just before June’s graduation. 

The next year, with that date in mind, they increased their messaging in the community and at school that drinking was not acceptable. They publicized that there would be alcohol compliance checks at local retailers.

Then the coalition received a tip from a student about Senior Skip Day. That year, the party was going to be at a local campground and one senior was already taking drink orders.

The coalition members sprang into action, sending an email to the police to make sure patrols would be out the weekend before the event, sending a clear message that the community was watching and involved. They informed the high school principal, who told students that anyone caught drinking would not be able to walk at graduation.

The radio station blasted the message: police would be doing extra patrols. The collation made posters of a police car with lights, which they taped inside bathroom stalls and on lockers. It read: “Hey kids. Party this weekend? Consider us invited.”

On Senior Skip Day, the police drove up to the campground to see if the multiple messages had been heard. The kids were there having fun, but there were no drugs or alcohol.

“They still had a great time, they were just sober,” said Ervin, the coalition’s director. “We’re looking to keep them safe while they enjoy their youth.”

Not surprisingly, when the survey data came in for May of that year, alcohol use remained flat.

Ervin said the experience in Okanogan County demonstrated the importance of understanding the motivations driving behavior. Data and surveys helped the coalition achieve that.

“The solutions are in the room,” she said. “But you have to create a space and the relationships to have these conversations, which are not easy conversations to have.”

[Photo by Steve Snodgrass via Flickr.]