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New anti-underage drinking campaign uses hashtags, social media

Preventing underage use of alcohol at the start of the prom season is the goal of an initiative called "Be A True Friend" being launched Wednesday, April 1, by two agencies in Carroll County.

April is National Alcohol Awareness Month, in addition to being the beginning of prom season, and the Carroll County Health Department Prevention Office and the Carroll County Coalition Against Underage Drinking are launching a retooled campaign in an effort to prevent people younger than 21 from drinking at a time of year when underage drinking is regarded as a problem.

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The campaign includes many of the familiar tools of prevention efforts, such as billboards and posters, but will also harness social media with a #Beatruefriend hashtag — word or phrase preceded by a # sign that is used to connect topics or ideas on social media sites such as Twitter or Instagramand a marketing focus designed to resonate with teenagers and young adults, according to Carol Mullen, Maryland Strategic Prevention Framework Grant coordinator the Carroll County Health Department.

"As a standard practice, we have facts, we have stats, we have a lot of information we can put out there, but we were trying to take a different angle this time," she said. "Parents and teens will be incentivized ...making it an empowerment statement to avoid underage drinking and do the right thing."

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Mullen approached Rich Austin, owner of Trembling Giant Marketing in Sykesville, to craft a new approach and Austin began by looking at what hadn't worked: Communications aimed at warning individual teens away from using alcohol.

The problem, according to Austin, is that by default, teens don't see themselves as potential victims. They understand bad things can happen to people, he said, but since they don't conceive of bad things happening to them, the traditional warnings that drinking could wind up harming them as individuals simply does not resonate.

"The campaigns always talk to the person who might be breaking the law or endangering their health, but that is not effective because they do not think they have a problem, so we decided to approach it from a different angle," Austin said. "Be a true friend came out of this idea of not talking to the kid that might commit a crime, but to talk to his friends, say that it's not OK if you see a friend drinking or trying to buy alcohol. You need to help you friend."

Austin said he hopes that by taking the focus of the bad consequences to individual teens and placing it on others, the campaign can bypass the usual resistance to prevention messages and engage young people in spreading the message of the campaign.

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"It empowers them, it really feeds into the self-centered ego that all kids have ... by saying, 'You can make a difference, and you can do something good,'" he said. "It was more than just having a positive message though. It was also meant subversively in that if someone gets in the mindset that they should help their friend, they are less likely to do it themselves."

The Coalition will use the #Beatruefriend hashtag on its Facebook page and on Twitter, according to Mullen, and the hope is that community members of all ages will pick it up and use it to share statistics and stories about the importance of preventing underage drinking.

The campaign is also producing handouts for law enforcement and for clerks at liquor stories, Mullen said, with a focus on educating parents and adults that it is illegal to buy alcohol for minors or to host parties for them where alcohol is being consumed.

"All 40 liquor stores in Carroll County, we are asking them to hand out these stat cards to customers," she said. "Some might say, 'One in six teens binge drink, but only one in 100 parents think they do," or, "Do something to prevent underage drinking #Beatruefriend' on the flip side of that card ... It's just starting a conversation, bringing the awareness out to a different audience."

It will not be the first time the Coalition has used alcohol retailers as part of a campaign against underage drinking.

"In the two years prior to this we did an April project called Project Sticker Shock," she said. "We would paste these warning labels on beer, alcohol pops — anything that the liquor store would suggest are attractive to youth."

Although liquor retailers were supportive, Mullen said they passed on feedback that liquor manufacturers were upset and believed the program was "defacing" their products by pasting on bright stickers stating that it was illegal to buy alcohol for minors. More importantly though, she said some retailers reported back that their customers simply were not purchasing the products with the stickers on them.

Darren Barnes, the owner of College Square Liquors in Westminster and an active member of the Coalition, said he had some negative feedback.

"The products are nicely packaged and customers have parties and they have these bright stickers on them," he said. "We are all on board, but we want to make sure we are not upsetting customers so we can feel better about the message."

It was Barnes who suggested the idea of the cards to be handed out to customers at liquor stores. He said that unfortunately, the liquor industry often makes headlines when a sting operation reveals someone acting irresponsibly by selling alcohol to minors, and he believes it is important to let people know the majority of retailers are supportive of the law and discouraging underage drinking.

"All you can do is try, and if one or two people pick it up and realize that what they were thinking about doing is not the right thing, that's something gained. This is just another avenue we are trying," he said. "We also wanted to make the public aware that we do sometimes see parents coming in and buying for high school kids on their graduation and we are trying to make them aware that that is not a good thing to do, or legal."

There are a lot of misconceptions about teen alcohol use, Mullen said, and many people still consider it a right of passage. But new evidence about the development of the human brain shows that it is still developing into the early 20s, and alcohol use by teens can increase the risks they face in other areas of their developing lives, from driving to sex.

"Adolescence is a time for discovery and change," Mullen said. "The introduction of alcohol can lead to life altering consequences. Teens/parents making good choices for a great future results in a sober life."

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