PLYMOUTH CO. -- Plymouth County youth have a drinking problem.
But a recent survey administered by the Iowa Department of Public Health indicates that underage and binge drinking in the county, although high, are reportedly decreasing.
In 2011, Plymouth County received a three-year $250,000 grant to reduce problem drinking.
Joe Maffit, of Sioux City's Jackson Recovery Centers, coordinates the grant and serves on the Plymouth County Health Planning Committee, a coalition of health experts, community officials and students.
On Friday, he presented the health department's findings to the committee.
In 2010, county youth reported some of the highest rates of binge drinking in the state. About 28.5 percent of 11th graders reported they had been binge drinking during the previous month, according to the Iowa Youth Survey.
Binge drinking was defined as consuming five or more drinks in a row within a few hours.
In 2012, 18 percent of the county's 11th graders reported they were binge drinking.
"We are seeing downward trends in our county and that is wonderful," Maffit said.
Maffit thinks county initiatives paid for by the grant helped reduce underage youths' alcohol consumption. These initiatives included a Facebook ad campaign and a billboard posting on Highway 75.
Other data reported in the survey are also encouraging, said Maffit.
Since 2010, greater numbers of Plymouth County students reported they believed it was against their values to use alcohol while underage. They also thought underage peers caught using alcohol should be suspended from participating in extracurricular activities for some time period.
The number of youth who reported their parents or community would disapprove if they drank alcohol increased 1.7 percent and 4.3 percent respectively.
Maffit noted peer pressure is a powerful tool in discouraging problem drinking.
However, Jane Sanders, a prevention educator at Jackson Recovery Centers, said youth she educates often do not know how their parents feel about alcohol consumption.
Sanders said although many parents do not feel comfortable with their underage children drinking, they haven't shared their concerns.
"It's important for parents to be talking about it," she said, "saying 'these are my expectations.'"
In the case of underage drinking, Sanders added, disapproving parents might tell their children, "you are going against my values."
RoxAnn Smith, also a prevention educator at Jackson, told the committee one of the greatest challenges she faces comes from parents who feel comfortable allowing their underage children to drink under their supervision.
"It's something that will be tough to change," Maffit added.
Sanders said future strategies to curb problem drinking need to consider the reasons why teenagers drink in the first place. She identified family problems as a common reason, and said they are magnified when parents do not teach their children healthy coping skills.
Putting on a smile isn't a good solution, she noted, because the world isn't always a fine place.
"We tell them not to drink, or we tell them 'don't go smoking pot,'" she said. "If (they) don't have those coping mechanisms, that's the way they cope."
Although the problem drinking grant is almost used up, Maffit says the committee's work needs to continue and will have a long-standing impact on Plymouth County's reputation.
"How will your community be remembered and how will your county be remembered?" he asked.