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Undercover cop Bob Doherty casually flips through the tabloids as his partner checks out the soda selection. All the while, their eyes shift slyly from the convenience store's beer cooler to the cash register.

Watch out, underage drinkers: Police in several states are targeting youngsters, rather than the stores that sell them booze, with a program called "Cops In Shops.""Instead of just beating up on the retailer . . . it puts the onus on the perpetrator," said Greg La-Brache, a spokesman for the Los-Angeles based Century Council, which sponsors "Cops In Shops" programs across the country.

The nonprofit organization was founded three years ago by the alcohol industry to reduce underage drinking and drunken driving.

Maine police say that between 1989 and 1993, 56 teenagers who had been drinking were involved in fatal accidents on state highways. A University of Maine study found that 60 percent of Maine's high school juniors and seniors reported using alcohol in the previous month.

And despite a drinking age of 21 in all states, 87 percent of high school seniors have used alcohol. About two-thirds of teenagers who drink report that they can buy their own booze, according to a study by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc.

Maine is one of a handful of states, including Alaska, Arizona, New Mexico, North Carolina, Texas and Washington, D.C., in which state authorities are trying to curb underage drinking with undercover operations. Some cities in Georgia, Illinois, Nebraska, Oregon and Rhode Island already use the "Cops In Shops" model, and at least 10 states are to start the program this year.

Doherty and his partner, Paul Murphy, spend Friday and Saturday nights cruising from one Portland convenience store to the next in a beat-up, unmarked police car.

Outside stores, the two officers watch from their car to see if beer is being passed off in the parking lot. Inside, they stroll the aisles while eyeballing young shoppers.

"The word is out all throughout the schools," said Lt. Arthur Shaugh-nessy, who runs the program in Portland. "The kids are careful and aware that buying beer or wine could get them into big trouble."

Part of the success of the program is credited to intimidating bright green stickers plastered on store doors and beer coolers warning minors that a cop may be pretending to be an employee or shopper.

"The kids see the signs, turn around and say `See ya later,' " said Bob LaGuardia of the state Liquor Enforcement Bureau.

While the program is considered a success, deterring minors from buying doesn't always stop them from drinking. Just ask Portland High School sophomore Joe Reynolds.

"Kids are gonna get it," says Reynolds, 16.



Scary statistics

Facts about underage drinking, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Inc.:

- Eighty-seven percent of high school seniors have used alcohol.

- About two-thirds of teen-agers who drink report that they can buy their own alcoholic beverages.

- First use of alcohol typically begins around age 13.

- About 7 percent of eighth-graders, 18 percent of 10th-graders and 30 percent of 12th-graders report that they have been drunk during the previous month.

- Among teenagers who "binge drink" (consuming five or more drinks in a row), 39 percent say they drink alone; 58 percent say they drink when upset; 30 percent drink when they are bored; and 37 percent drink to feel high.

- Thirty-five percent of fourth-graders report having been pressured by their class-mates to drink. By the time they reach sixth grade, 49 percent have been pressured.