Underage Drinking Remains Concern in Fairfield County

Eliza Llewellyn, Web News Editor

Although drinking and driving has decreased in the time since a 2008 study showing accident rates to be high, Ingrid Gillespie, director of the Lower Fairfield County Regional Action Council, asserts that teen drinking is still a concern.  Even if drinking and driving are on the decline, underage exposure to alcohol is prevalent and is harmful in its effects on the brain, Gillespie said.

According to Gillespie, a 2000 study showed that the average American is first exposed to alcohol at age 13. However, in Fairfield County, that age is between 11 and 12.

“When you are exposed to a drug at a young age, it has more impact and you are more susceptible to addiction,” Gillespie said. “There is a reason that the legal drinking age is 21.”

On a wider scale, Gillespie reports that colleges in the North East have the highest drinking rates in the country.

Gillespie highlighted certain myths that may contribute to underage alcohol consumption. At parent meetings, she works to debunk beliefs that alcohol is a rite of passage and that early exposure to alcohol will result in “responsible” drinking, a conception that is prevalent in European culture. “It’s a myth,” Gillespie said. “Europe has just as many problems with alcohol as the United States.”

The town of Westport has many educational programs to combat substance abuse. “Staples has done a fabulous job with prevention,” said Joyce Sixsmith, a substance abuse counselor who has a private practice based in New Canaan and Norwalk and does public speaking about drug prevention in schools and to parent groups. Sixsmith is also a Staples parent.

As a substance abuse counselor, Sixsmith has given talks about alcohol to football teams in Westport and to groups in other towns. She also speaks with parents, who are an important factor influencing teen drinking.

Sixsmith also noted Grim Reaper day, TAG, and Safe Rides, as positive measures of prevention within the Staples community.

However, many of these groups focus on preventing drunk driving while not directly addressing teen drinking, according to Gillespie.  The latter issue is still affecting the community.

Lemone reported meeting with a total of 50 different Staples students about drugs and alcohol in the time period from September 2011 to March 2012.

“Prevention works when everyone has the same message,” Gillespie said, highlighting the solidarity of police, parents, and schools in combating drunk driving. “The same message [of solidarity] has not been applied about drinking.”