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Family dinner reduces underage drinking, advocates say

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SALT LAKE CITY — The meal doesn't have to be as picture perfect as it was inside Harmons City Creek on Monday.

Jaynie Brown, of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, sat in a pink blouse and matching pink apron flanked by perfectly coiffed blonde children, two on each side. Two beautiful, handmade pizzas sat at the end of the table as Brown delivered a message on why any meal eaten as a family, pristine or not, is better than nothing.

"When parents take time to make time to bond with their families and make clear rules about not drinking underage, kids are much less likely to drink or use drugs," Brown said.

"When children have dinner with their families at least five to seven times a week, they are 33 percent less likely to use alcohol or drugs."

The event was organized to kick off National Family Day and focused on the message "Save Family Dinner." It was the result of a partnership between ParentsEmpowered.org, the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and Harmons stores statewide.

Its aim was just as much about parents as it was children, as speaker after speaker emphasized the importance of parents in teaching and spending time with their children.

"What do kids really want for dinner?" Bob Harmon, Harmon's vice president for the customers, asked. "Their parents — the bonding, the interaction, the time to understand where they're at in life and try to support and guide them."

After all, their minds are still developing into their teenage years, Brown said. Richard Sperry, commission chairman of the DABC, talked about the role parents play when it comes to the choices their children will make.

"I don't think it's an overstatement to say that our future depends on the decisions made by our children today," Sperry said. "Underage drinking is a problem in the United States, it's a problem in the state of Utah and parents hold the key to partially resolving this problem by spending time with their children, spending time with them at the dinner table."

Seven years ago, the ParentsEmpowered.org campaign was launched with funding from the Legislature as part of a national initiative against underage drinking. It is spearheaded by the DABC, but works with a number of state agencies.

Its efforts are measured through risk prevention surveys administered to students in sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grades. The program has made a difference, according to Doug Murakami, alcohol education director at the DABC. Comparing numbers from recent surveys to those from 2005, officials have "seen the numbers go down."

Utah's substance abuse numbers, though, are traditionally among the lowest in the nation, so a notable decrease in substance abuse appears small.

"We're seeing the trends coming down, but at a very low rate," Murakami said. "We're energized by what we're seeing. We're reaching out, getting into a community level approach. That's where the rubber hits the road."

To see various community groups working together toward a common goal was "really exciting" for him — especially a goal that's so accessible.

"We want to make sure that everyone knows it's not rocket science," Murakami said. "Sometimes it is as simple as getting together around the dinner table, telling stories. Not anything too complex. It's the little things that really make a difference."

Brown was called in Monday after Jeanette Herbert, Utah's first lady and honorary chairwoman for Family Day, reported she wasn't feeling well. Brown was an eager replacement who smiled almost without pause. But that didn't mean she took the event, or its message, lightly. A full-time MADD volunteer and lobbyist, she joined the group after her 4-month-old grandson was killed by a drunk driver.

She'll be the first to tell you that studies show that 95 percent of Utah drivers arrested for driving under the influence also drank while underage. And when she said something was "super important," like the role of parents, she meant it. Parents need to know just how vital it is to bond, set clear boundaries and monitor their children, she said.

Brown raised her seven children in the Avenues, where they would have "make-your-own-pizza night" every Monday.

"As the kids sat around and rolled out their pizza dough, we had time to talk about the challenges and successes of life," she said, before imploring others: "Please have dinner with your family. Take time to talk to your kids and set clear goals about not drinking underage to protect their developing brain. … Take time to play and talk and have a fun time together."

Lisa May, whose four children flanked Brown at the dining table, said her family tries to eat together about five times a week. Sometimes, they make breakfast for dinner. But the meal itself is beside the point.

"It's a good time to talk about school and their lives, to spend quality time together," she said. "I just followed the good pattern of my own mom. Then science caught up and I found out it had all these great side benefits."

E-mail: emorgan@desnews.com

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