SALT LAKE CITY — Utah has the lowest number of underage drinkers in the country, according to a federal alcohol use report released Monday.
It's no surprise, as Utah also has the lowest number of adult drinkers, but public health officials said knowing that 14.3 percent of teens ages 12 to 20 are able to access alcohol gives them something to work on.
"Yes it is a low number; however, alcohol is still the No. 1 abused substance in the state of Utah," said Susannah Burt, program manager with Parents Empowered of Utah, a statewide campaign that works to end underage drinking. She said that as more parents get involved in their children's lives, fewer teens end up consuming alcohol.
"Parents are the No. 1 influence in a youth's life. They are the No. 1 reason that children choose not to use alcohol or any other substance," Burt said, adding that parents should stress boundaries and consistently monitor the behavior of their children.
Nationally, an average of 26.6 percent of youths reported using alcohol in a month's time, according to Monday's report.
The highest usage was reported in Vermont, where more than 37 percent of teens said they have used alcohol within 30 days of responding to the survey. Other Northeastern states, including Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Rhode Island, also had some of the highest rates, while the lowest use was reported in the South, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, via the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, regularly surveys teens and releases nationwide percentages of America's underage drinkers. Its latest report details underage alcohol use across the nation between 2008 and 2010. Respondents were asked whether they used alcohol in the past 30 days and whether they purchased it themselves.
In Utah, 3.23 percent of teen respondents reported purchasing alcohol on their own. The low number suggests that kids are "getting it from home, sometimes with their parents' or another adult's permission," Burt said.
"When they give even the slightest bit of approval, that's when the youth think the door has been opened and that it is OK," she said. "They think it is only kind of bad instead of really, really bad."
Dr. Scott Whittle, a psychiatrist at Primary Children's Medical Center, said parental supervision often wanes at age 12 — the same time kids tend to get more free time.
"For most people, access and free time happen right about that time," he said, adding that parents don't always associate alcohol with its possible negative effects because it is used recreationally among adults.
"As adults, we don't have a very healthy, balanced view of alcohol," Whittle said. "We tend to want to ignore the negative aspects, the damaged relationships, jobs and education. If we looked at alcohol more honestly, the negative side can be huge."
Much like adults, he said, alcohol use among children can impair their ability to function in society. The substance produces long-term effects on a teen's developing brain, including memory impairment, learning disabilities, poor decision-making and lack of impulse control, according to the American Medical Association, which was quoted in an October 12-page local newspaper insert, sponsored by the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and Utah Prevention.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration report states that alcohol use is "one of the most serious public health issues for young people in the United States, creating negative health, social and economic consequences for adolescents, their families, communities and the nation as a whole."
Reducing access to alcohol remains an important step in preventing underage consumption, according to the report. All states have had the authority for alcohol control since 1933, and each prohibits possession of alcoholic beverages by anyone under age 21, but no state is immune from underage drinking problems, the report said.
"Highlighting the prevalence of these problems in each state can help federal, state and local policymakers plan for and allocate resources to combat underage drinking, including efforts to reduce the availability of alcohol to young people, raise awareness about underage drinking and its consequences, and develop effective approaches to prevent underage drinking," the report states.
Whittle said such policies are helping to keep consumption rates down among teens, but more can be done.
"We need to be better at reducing access in the home," he said. Also addressing a drinking problem while it is still early is important. Whittle said solutions are available, but "if you're allowed to use routinely, the consequences grow."