CITYWIDE — A county-funded organization dedicated to curbing alcohol use amongst teens is targeting Santa Monica and Venice, which officials say have one of the highest underage drinking rates in the area.

The Westside Impact Project is a campaign aimed at reducing teen alcohol use by cutting them off at the source — stores and house parties.

Sarah Blanch, the program manager for the Institute for Public Strategies, was quick to forestall any effort to use the “P” word.

“This is not about prohibition,” she said.

Instead, the Westside Impact Project looks at strategies and policies, both from a public planning and law enforcement perspective, to prevent sales to and consumption by minors.

The project, funded by the Substance Abuse Prevention and Control Division of Los Angeles County, technically focuses on the entire Westside, including Mar Vista, Palms, Marina del Rey, Culver City and the beachside towns.

Given that the organization has only three staff members, officials had to choose specific areas on which to focus, said Brenda Simmons, the project director.

Santa Monica and Venice quickly rose to the top of the list.

Officials looked at existing data in the California Healthy Kids Survey in which teens reported their alcohol use and conducted a survey in the UCLA area, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica.

The Healthy Kids Survey, conducted in 2011, shows that three-quarters of Santa Monica High School students considered alcohol either “very” or “fairly” easy to get, and 26 percent reported drinking more than five drinks in one sitting in the previous month.

Santa Monica teens were 10 percent more likely to report having had a drink in the last 30 days.

They also looked at arrest rates for driving under the influence, and the number of alcohol serving and sales locations.

All in all, the availability and use of alcohol — which studies show are connected — put Santa Monica squarely in the spotlight.

“It has been fascinating,” Blanch said. “The numbers in terms of alcohol outlet density in Santa Monica are eye-opening.”

According to the project, Santa Monica is rated sixth highest in the county for its concentration of restaurants and other businesses that serve alcohol for consumption on site. There’s also one alcohol outlet per 294 residents on average, which is more than double that of the county.

According to the Institute for Public Strategies, the number of alcohol outlets in a city has been connected to violence, crime, alcohol-related car accidents, domestic violence and sexual assault.

A study of three cities in Northern California also showed that communities with more alcohol outlets had higher underage drinking rates and gang-related behavior.

The national Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states that underage drinking is “a major public health problem.” Alcohol is the most commonly used and abused drug among American youth, and is responsible for more than 4,700 underage deaths a year.

More than 90 percent of the alcohol consumed by people between the ages of 12 and 20 is considered binge drinking.

Underage drinking can put kids at a higher risk for suicide, create memory problems or increase the likelihood that the drinker will use other drugs, according to the CDC.

Given the severity of both the problem and the consequences, the Westside Impact Project officials plan to hit the ground running, talking to community members, city employees and people from the school district to tease out potential solutions to the teen drinking problem.

Strategies that have worked in other communities include minor decoy stings at liquor stores, extra DUI checkpoints and a dedicated patrol car to take care of house parties.

Police already respond to calls of weekend parties, which sometimes involve teenagers who are drinking, said Sgt. Richard Lewis, spokesperson for the Santa Monica Police Department.

“When this occurs, we locate the responsible party and issue a citation or make an arrest where appropriate,” Lewis said. “We also arrest the juveniles who are intoxicated and cannot care for themselves or who are in possession of alcohol.”

The Westside Impact Project tries to tackle things from the legislative end, using policies like the “social host law.” The law makes the owner of a property or the person whose name is on the lease responsible for allowing minors to drink. A violation can be accompanied by a stiff fine.

Santa Monica-specific suggestions will come forward sometime in the next year, Simmons said.

Local officials recognize teen drinking is a problem, and are taking steps to fix it.

City Hall’s Community and Cultural Services Department pulled together the Youth Wellbeing Report Card, which referenced the same California Healthy Kids Survey as the Westside Impact Project.

Alcohol use was notable, said Julie Rusk, assistant director of the department.

That information will be used in the Cradle to Career initiative, a comprehensive effort to address the needs of youth in the community from birth and onward.

One way in which City Hall is responding to the issue is by providing money to the CLARE Foundation to offer the Clarity for Youth program, which brings counselors to high schools to work with at-risk students.

The CLARE Foundation, a nonprofit specializing in drug and alcohol recovery and education, is a brand new coalition partner in the Westside Impact Project, said Jessica Hay, prevention manager at CLARE.

While the Westside Impact Project addresses access, Clarity for Youth focuses on education, teaching kids at local middle and high schools how to say no to alcohol and providing counseling to those already impacted.

“Both are necessary components and they do complement each other,” Hay said. “The goals are similar, and the strategies are a little different.”

 

 

ashley@smdp.com