ELLSWORTH, Maine — A coalition of law enforcement agencies and Healthy Maine Partnerships in Hancock County will target underage drinking in an effort to reduce the number of young people who drink.
The plan, which was presented in December to a meeting of district police chiefs, creates the Hancock County Underage Drinking Collaborative, whose goal is to reduce underage and high-risk drinking and the problems linked to those behaviors, including deadly accidents, sexual assaults, unwanted pregnancies and academic problems.
Although past efforts have had some success in reducing the number of young people who drink, the numbers are still too high.
“We still have a way to go. There have been too many tragic incidents in the past year involving alcohol,” said Mary Jane Bush, the health planning director at Bucksport Bay Health Communities. “Our goal is to prevent any further fatalities caused by underage drinking. We want to reduce the number of youths who participate in those kinds of activities and to reduce the access points that they have to alcohol.”
Bush said the collaborative would allow Healthy Maine Partnerships in the county to work with law enforcement agencies to address the issue in a coordinated way. It also will allow the collaborative members to share resources “so that we can maximize the gains we can realize from those programs,” Bush said Friday.
Reaching the goal of reducing underage drinking requires that the agencies work together, according to Chris Thornton, a deputy with the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department who heads the county’s Underage Drinking Task Force.
“The HMPs provide the educational component, and the Underage Drinking Task Force provides the oversight and enforcement to ensure that the rules and regulations are being adhered to,” Thornton said. “Enforcement without education and prevention doesn’t adequately address the concerns of our communities and citizens.”
Likewise, the support of law enforcement agencies reinforces the message, according to Denise Black of Healthy Peninsula in Blue Hill.
“The support of law enforcement makes it clear that our community does not stand for underage drinking, and that those who break the law will be caught,” Black said.
While many of the programs already are in place, both groups see the collaborative as a way to strengthen the link between prevention and enforcement.
“It provides us with a base from which to grow — a commitment to work together on this serious issue,” said Kenney Miller of Union River Healthy Communities.
Some of those collaborative efforts are already under way. In January, Bucksport Bay Healthy Communities offered a “Responsible Beverage Service” training session for employers and employees who serve or sell alcoholic beverages. Bucksport police officers notified businesses of the training session, which is designed fa-miliarize employees with laws and regulations regarding alcohol sales and reduce incidents of sales to underage drinkers.
The Hancock County Sheriff’s Department also was involved in that program, Bush said.
Alcohol retailers can play an important role in reducing underage drinking, according to the collaborative partners, and, in the coming months, HMPs will sponsor additional alcohol server-seller training sessions for area businesses. The sessions cover such topics as how to identify and reject a risky sale and spot a fake ID, alco-hol policies and the law.
Training sessions are planned for the Blue Hill Peninsula on March 25 and 26; in Ellsworth on May 20; and on Mount Desert Island on June 10 and 11.
The collaborative’s plan also includes strategies that focus on education, including promoting ways parents can help make sure their kids don’t drink. Collaborative partners also plan to investigate the possibility of establishing a countywide tip line for reporting drinking parties, as well as conducting party patrols and compliance checks.
According to Bush, the HMPs can also work with law enforcement to develop resources so that those agencies will have sufficient funds to conduct those types of activities.
The collaborative also will set specific goals and, at the end of the year, will evaluate what progress they have made.