April 5, 2008 — Underage drinking is on the rise in the Virgin Islands and the St. Croix Unity Coalition held a panel discussion Thursday about ways to combat it.
Attending the forum at the University of the Virgin Islands were 35 students and adults.
Denise Lewis, president of St. Croix Unity Coalition (SCUC), said the number of children who start to drink at a young age is growing. Lewis said according to a national survey, alcohol use in children has risen from 35 to 45 percent from 2006 to 2007.
"These statistics are alarming," said Lewis. "We need to talk to young people and get their views on what is going on."
According to a statement from SCUC, teens in the Virgin Islands have easier access to alcohol because of loose drinking laws and a lower legal drinking age of 18.
The panel included Alegenia Maffei, a junior at Educational Complex, and her mother, Eugenia Maffei; Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Kim Nosek, director of treatment service at the Village Partners in Recovery; Magdalena Santana-Nieves, program coordinator of project Hibiscus at the Village, Marren Roebuck, Department of Health, and Dennis Lynch, UVI student and member of Unity Coalition Youth Component.
Roebuck said there should be stiffer vendor laws with fines for selling to minors. She also thinks the drinking age in the Virgin Islands needs to be raised to 21.
"With all of this in mind we need to have dialogues with the governor and start initiatives. As adults we're committed to enforce fines and laws," Roebuck said.
The student panelists said peer pressure and choosing the right friends makes a difference in their lives.
"Teens need to think for themselves and not go with the crowd," said Maffei.
Lynch said he thinks there should be school programs educating students about the danger of underage drinking. Santana-Nieves agreed there has to be more prevention education with the government getting more involved.
"We need to teach about choices and consequences," said Nelson. "Children need to learn positive habits and attitudes."
He said drinking could also be a coping mechanism hiding other issues such as abuse.
Roebuck echoed Sen. Nelson saying kids have a sense of hopelessness and alcohol masks the pain.
Panelists advocated that parents have to play a bigger part in their children's lives.
"We need to take back our homes, be proactive and good role models," Roebuck said.
Eugenia Maffei said parents should become good role models. She said parents should be more actively involved in discussing the downside of drinking.
Lewis said she had hoped more people would have attended the forum. "It will be great if each one here takes this message to at least three other people," Lewis said. "We will continue to press on with youth organizations, PTAs and churches.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Federal Coordinating Committee on Underage Drinking sponsored the forum. Hosting the forum was SCUC in collaboration with The University of the Virgin Islands-Division of Student Affairs.
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