Portland campaign against underage drinking targets sellers, youth, parents

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PORTLAND — A coalition dedicated to combating underage and high-risk drinking hopes information distribution and a series of training sessions for servers, sellers and law enforcement will reduce youth access to alcohol.

But the effectiveness of the effort will be difficult to gauge, one representative said, even as its necessity continues to be demonstrated: As recently as Sunday, several city businesses were cited by police for allegedly selling alcohol to minors.

Nonprofit group 21 Reasons this month hosted about 20 police officers, and 50 employees of area liquor stores and bars like Pearl Lounge and Bull Feeney’s, for training sessions conducted by Frank Lyons, a former liquor enforcement officer who has trained over 12,000 people statewide in alcohol compliance.

“How do you identify a drunk, a kid, a forged ID?” Lyons said. “God forbid, if something happens, under the Maine Liquor Liability Act, (a bar or liquor store) can introduce into evidence, as proof of reasonable service, the fact that they’ve had state-approved responsible server training. That’s what I emphasize.”

Carol Swicker, project manager for 21 Reasons, said the organization works mainly with adults and not youth. That’s partly because 21 Reasons, which is funded through the state Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, cannot officially advocate a harm-reduction model to underage kids, which would be similar to promoting safe sex instead of abstinence.

But the coalition encourages parents to take on that role, and next month it will distribute information on underage drinking and its penalties through universities and landlords who rent to students.

“The first six weeks (of freshman year) can often define drinking behavior for all of college,” Swicker said. “We work a lot with parents so they keep in close communication with their kids when they go off to college.”

Swicker said the effectiveness of its programs is “more anecdotal,” especially since the University of Southern Maine, in a money-saving move, two years ago stopped conducting a survey on student habits and attitudes toward alcohol.

However, she said, Bayside Village housing on Marginal Way has reported fewer underage alcohol incidents since partnering with 21 Reasons, and there has been a “huge drop” in compliance violations from bars and liquor stores over the past year.

Lyons echoed Swicker’s take on compliance checks, the operations where police send an underage person into a bar or liquor store to try and buy alcohol. During checks last week in Old Orchard Beach, she said, 31 out of 31 outlets refused service to a minor.

“The vast number of licensees aren’t criminals, they’re businessmen and -women,” Lyons said. “You’ll get the odd one out, but they’re not in business very long.”

But there’s still a definite need for server/seller education and awareness. On Sunday evening, three downtown Portland retailers – Cumberland Farms on Pine Street, Gulf Express Mart on Congress Street and Silver House Tavern on Commercial Street – received summonses for non-compliance, Police Cmdr. Gary Rogers said.

In addition to being required by a Portland ordinance, server/seller trainings have helped fill the void created in 2003 when the state got rid of liquor enforcement officers, Lyons said. But bartenders and store clerks will always be just one part of the equation when it comes to kids and drinking.

“The vast majority of abusive consumption and drinking, especially with underage kids, is still at the private level,” Lyons said. “The pit parties, graduation parties, the parties being sponsored by parents who think they’re doing the right thing, but have no idea of the ramifications of it.

“Licensees are insured, but these parents are not,” she continued. “There’s nothing that says their homeowner’s insurance will cover it. When they provide a place for underage kids to drink, it’s a crime. If serious bodily injury comes out of it, it’s a felony. They can be sued for everything they own.”

Brendan Twist can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or btwist@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @brendantwist.