If you’ve watched an ACC basketball game lately, you’ve seen these ads. The first features a mother placing a pair of diamond earrings on her daughter’s ears, telling her that her grandmother always wanted her to have them. Several seconds go by before the viewer sees that the mother is dressing her daughter’s body, which lies in a casket. The second commercial begins with a dad talking to his son (who is off camera) about the chilly weather and how he will need to bundle him up when they go for a walk. The father continues to talk while he mashes bananas for his son’s breakfast. When the camera pans to the son, the viewer learns that he is not a baby, but instead is a young man confined to a wheelchair. The son is immobile, unable to speak, and has prominent scar on his skull. Both advertisements conclude with the same general message: Talk to your children about the dangers of alcohol and stop underage drinking. The ads are professional, poignant, and pervasive. Where did they come from?
Talk it Out campaign. Governor Pat McCrory created a Substance Abuse and Underage Drinking Prevention and Treatment Task Force by executive order in 2014. The twenty-member task force was ultimately charged with creating a plan to address (1) the underage sale and use of alcohol and drugs, (2) risky behaviors and substance abuse among college students and (3) the provision of treatment and recovery services for people struggling with substance abuse. But one of the first orders of business was for the ABC Commission to report on its efforts to combat underage drinking and substance abuse and its use of State appropriations and ABC Commission funds to facilitate that effort. The ABC Commission responded by launching the Talk it Out campaign, which is aimed at raising awareness of underage drinking and giving parents “the right tools for talking to kids about the dangers of underage drinking.” The ads I described earlier are part of this campaign.
The extent of the problem. According to a report by the General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division (more about that later) the ABC Commission relied on the following data in determining the need for the underage drinking prevention program:
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey data of public school students. The 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed that 32.2 percent of the North Carolina high school students surveyed had consumed at least one alcoholic drink within the last 30 days. The CDC’s survey of North Carolina middle school students reflected that 26.2 percent of such students reported that they “ever drank alcohol.” Both percentages have decreased in recent years. In 2007, 37.7 percent of high school students surveyed in NC said they had consumed at least one alcoholic drink in the last 30 days and 33.6 percent of middle school students reported that they ever drank alcohol.
- ABC Commission surveys of middle and high school students and their parents. A polling company hired by the ABC Commission in 2014 conducted telephone surveys of 500 parents and 300 middle and high school students in North Carolina on their perceptions of alcohol use among youth. Survey results reflected that 92 percent of parents say they have talked about alcohol abuse and underage drinking with their middle or high school aged children. Most parents (72 percent) had not, however, researched underage drinking or ways to talk to their children about it. And a majority of middle and high school students (58 percent) said alcohol use by children their age is a big problem.
- Focus groups of stakeholders conducted by the ABC Commission. Focus groups of stakeholders including law enforcement officials, ABC officials, community advocates and others convened by the ABC Commission in 2013 identified four strategies to reduce underage drinking: changing community norms regarding underage drinking, decreasing underage access to alcohol, developing and promoting activities that reduce underage drinking, and creating a stable source of state funding for initiatives to reduce underage drinking.
Funding for the campaign. The ABC Commission initially asked the General Assembly to redirect $1.4 million in alcohol taxes from the Department of Health and Human Services to the ABC Commission to fund the Talk it Out campaign. The General Assembly asked its Program Evaluation Division (PED) to examine the benefits and disadvantages of such a reallocation. While the PED was completing its report (which concluded that DHHS could lose $2.8 million in combined state and federal funding for substance abuse treatment and prevention due to the reallocation, resulting in nearly 300 fewer people receiving alcohol and substance abuse services each year), the ABC Commission raised bailment surcharges on cases of liquor shipped from the ABC warehouse from $0.80 to $1.40 per case in order to entirely fund the Talk it Out program. This increase is expected to generate $3 million each year, which the ABC Commission deems sufficient revenue to cover the full cost of the program. The upshot is that customers at ABC stores are paying for Talk It Out, including the prime-time professional advertising, just as they do for all ABC Commission expenditures.
What does any of this have to do with criminal law? Plenty, according to the Talk it Out campaign. The Talk it Out website cites a fact paper produced by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation which provides the following North Carolina statistics (though it does not identify their source):
- During 2012, an estimated 36 traffic fatalities and 1,487 nonfatal traffic injuries were attributable to driving after underage drinking
- In 2012, an estimated 31 homicides; 15,600 nonfatal violent crimes such as rape, robbery, and assault; 31,600 property crimes including burglary, larceny, and car theft; and 592,000 public order crimes including vandalism, disorderly conduct, loitering, and curfew violations were attributable to underage drinking
- In 2011, an estimated 9 alcohol-involved fatal burns, drownings, and suicides were attributable to underage drinking
The Talk it Out campaign also includes anecdotal reports of arrests and convictions related to underage drinking, mentioning the arrest of a Raleigh couple on charges that they aided and abetted in the consumption of alcohol by a minors during their daughter’s wedding reception (they were acquitted at trial) and the involuntary manslaughter conviction of a mother in Transylvania County after her son’s friend died of alcohol poisoning in her basement.
Diversion programs. The Talk it Out campaign lists as a special initiative diversion programs funded by the Governor’s Crime Commission. These programs focus on diverting criminal charges related to underage drinking from criminal court into effective therapeutic programs. Talk it Out reports that data from these programs will be used to study what elements of diversion programs are likely to reduce recidivism. Four district attorneys currently are participating: Seth Banks (Avery, Madison, Mitchell, Watauga, and Yancey County); Ben David, (New Hanover and Pender County); Jim O’Neill (Forsyth County); and Kimberly S. Robb (Pitt County).
Will the campaign make any difference? That remains to be seen. The Program Evaluation Division (PED) suggested that the legislature consider requiring the ABC Commission to develop quantifiable goals and targets to measure the success of the Talk It Out program since none were currently included. The PED further suggested that “before the ABC Commission’s focus shifts from an awareness campaign to one that targets reducing the rate of underage drinking, the General Assembly  consider requiring the key outcome indicator of underage drinking rates be a component of the program’s performance management plan.” Finally, the PED proposed that the legislature consider whether increased external oversight of Talk it Out, currently overseen entirely by the ABC Commission, might render the program more successful.