BOWLING GREEN - When Ohio First Lady Hope Taft talks about how things have changed since she was a child, she doesn't mention cell phones or iPods - or even the Internet.
Mrs. Taft talks about drive-through beverage stores, gas stations that sell cold beer ready to drink, baby clothing with beer logos, and advertising for alcohol everywhere from sports arenas to NASCAR cars.
Forget about sober designated drivers, Mrs. Taft said.
Now children talk about having a DDD - designated drunk driver - the least drunk person who gets to drive everyone home.
"I'm hoping you will help turn back the clock," she told a group of substance abuse prevention specialists from northwest Ohio yesterday.
"We've gone from where we started maybe drinking in college at age 18 to where kids in Ohio are drinking at age 12," she said.
With a bright red "STOP underage drinking" sign in front of her, Mrs. Taft told the group meeting at the Wood County Educational Service Center that Ohio ranked No. 2 in the United States for underage alcohol consumption.
"Twenty-six percent of the alcohol sold in Ohio is consumed by underage drinkers," she said.
While the average age of initiation to alcohol use is 12 in Ohio, about 10 percent of 9 and 10-year-olds have tried alcohol, she said.
"We know from this data that kids are losing their ability to learn," Mrs. Taft said.
Alcohol consumption causes "noticeable change" in the brain function of a child, she said, causing problems with learning, problem-solving, and memory.
The second-hand consequences range from unintended sexual activity and sexual assaults to an increased risk for suicide, homicide, and accidental deaths.
"It is time for us to look at underage drinking as a leading public health problem in this country," she said.
Mrs. Taft was preaching to the choir, but she challenged those in attendance to take the message to at least two groups in their communities by April, to write to beer and liquor companies when they see advertising that targets children, and to lobby legislators to toughen impaired driving laws and raise taxes on alcohol.
"Sixteen ounces of milk costs $1.09. Sixteen ounces of orange juice costs $1.29, and 16 ounces of beer? Eighty-nine cents," Mrs. Taft said. "It is accessible. It is affordable, and it is very alluring to young people."
Mrs. Taft encouraged area communities to join 46 Ohio cities planning to hold "smart and sober" town-hall meetings in March and April, and some already are on board.
April Swick, program coordinator with Prevention Partners of Wood County, said students and their families are invited to one such gathering at 7 p.m. March 29 at Perrysburg Junior High School.
Mrs. Taft, along with Mayor Nelson Evans and superintendents from Perrysburg, Rossford, and Eastwood local schools, are among the panelists for the evening.
In Bowling Green, Mayor John Quinn said the Community Coalition for Youth and Families is making plans for its third town hall-style meeting on March 30 at Bowling Green High School.
The mayor received several compliments yesterday for his attempts to raise awareness in Bowling Green about inappropriate alcohol consumption, including his annual plea for bars to not open in the early morning hours on St. Patrick's Day.
"That's a challenge," remarked Doug Garman, superintendent of the Wood County Educational Service Center. "But it's great that he's willing to stick his neck out."
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