SALT LAKE CITY — Ethan Fong is a typical Utah teenager.
He’s a good student. He plays basketball in a city league with his buddies. He’s a big Los Angeles Dodgers fan. He enjoys competitive fencing. He’s working on his Eagle Scout award. He likes hanging out with friends.
And like the majority of kids in the state his age, he doesn’t drink alcohol.
“It’s never been something I wanted to do,” he says, attributing his attitude about drinking to the influence of his parents and his Mormon upbringing.
When it comes to alcohol, Utah teenagers drink at much lower rates than the national average. That holds true whether they have ever tried alcohol in their lives, drank in the past 30 days or binge drank in the past two weeks. Furthermore, those rates have fallen or stayed flat since 2009.
“We’re half of everything bad,” Craig PoVey, prevention program manager for the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, likes to say about not just drinking but drug use as well.
For example, the 30-day use rate for Utah high school seniors was 14 percent compared to about 42 percent nationally, according to the 2013 Student Health and Risk Prevention report. The biennial state survey gauges alcohol and drug use among sixth-, eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders in the state.
PoVey points to a list of risk factors that contribute to kids choosing to drink, including availability of alcohol, family conflict, trouble at school and peer pressure.
“We live in area where we are lucky, blessed, however you want to look at it, or very skilled at decreasing those risk factors in kids,” he said.
Laws and policies that restrict access to alcohol, community attitudes and religiosity all play a part in that, PoVey said.
As an alcoholic beverage control state, Utah strictly manages the wholesale and retail distribution and sale of liquor, wine and beer. The state Legislature makes laws and policies based on principles that attempt to ensure public safety, curb overconsumption and prevent underage drinking.
One of those laws is the so-called “Zion Curtain,” a barrier in restaurants designed to shield children from liquor displays and drink mixing. State lawmakers created the separate preparation area as way to distinguish restaurants from bars.
The Utah House passed a bill last year to eliminate the barrier, but it stalled in the Senate. It’s likely to come up again this year.
Opponents and proponents of the wall disagree about whether it helps reduce underage drinking. There are no studies either way.
But PoVey, who finds the term “Zion Curtain” offensive, said it is another way to keep children from being exposed to alcohol. Drink mixing is an art form with its shaking and stirring, and it’s something that children don’t need to see in restaurants, he said.
Glamorizing drinking or making it look fun are among risk factors that could lead young people to try alcohol, he said.
“Just because kids see it doesn’t mean they’re going to use it. There’s no cause and effect in this,” PoVey said. “But there are predictors, and the more predictors you have, the more likely the kid’s going to do it.”
David Jernigan, director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the alcohol barrier prevents some modeling of behavior, but he doesn’t know anyone who’s studied it.
“The more normalized alcohol is, the more integrated it is into the life around the young people, the more likely they will be to drink,” he said. “Utah certainly gets a lot of points for not normalizing alcohol.”
Though teenage drinking rates are lower in Utah, there are pockets of the state where they hover around the national average.
Park City in Summit County is one of those places. Underage consumption in the county more than doubles state averages for regular alcohol use and binge drinking.
Kathy Day, a prevention coordinator with Valley Behavioral Health in Park City, attributed that to the area’s diverse culture and residents whose attitudes about alcohol might differ from the state as a whole.
The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association recently teamed up with ParentsEmpowered, Utah’s underage drinking prevention initiative, to educate parents and youth about the dangers of drinking before age 21.
“Teens that drink are drinking to get drunk. They’re not drinking to have a cocktail after work. They’re not drinking a glass of wine with dinner. If they have the opportunity to get their hand on alcohol, they’re drinking, and they’re drinking a lot of it,” said Park City police Chief Wade Carpenter.
More than a quarter of Utah children who drank alcohol in the past year say they got it at home with their parents’ permission, according to the 2013 student health and risk study. And among those who drank liquor in their own houses, 40.5 percent say they did it with the approval of parents.
“Stopping underage drinking is an adult problem. It’s not a kid problem,” said Art Brown, a ParentsEmpowered board member and former longtime president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Parental attitudes toward drinking influence the attitude and behavior of their children, according to the health survey of students in sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grades in 39 school districts and 14 charter schools across Utah. The state Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health oversees the survey.
Parental approval of moderate drinking, even under supervision, substantially increases the risk of the young person using alcohol, according to the survey. In families where parents involve children in their drinking, such as asking a child to get them a beer, it is more likely that their kids will drink before age 21.
The report showed that of children who thought their parents would find underage drinking “very wrong,” only 4.5 percent had consumed alcohol in the past 30 days. It jumped to 29 percent among children who say their parents see it as “wrong.” For those whose parents find it a “little bit wrong” or “not wrong at all,” the figure went to 44 percent.