State money aids in effort to cut underage drinking

York County's top attorney, Kevin Brackett, didn't know the colorful bottle and can sitting among a display contained alcohol. Some York County parents don't either.

But their kids know that some drinks in perfume- and cologne-shaped bottles, and some energy drinks, contain alcohol. And they're drinking it.

Keystone Substance Abuse Services and local law enforcement, armed with $98,000 issued from the state, said Thursday they hope to convince parents to be more aggressive in checking the labels of what their kids drink to help curb underage drinking.

"It's confusing," Keystone spokeswoman Jane Alleva said of the slick packaging of some alcoholic products. "Merchants and parents need to be aware."

Officials contend small and sleek bottles -- perfect for concealing inside purses or jacket pockets -- can attract the attention of people too young to drink alcohol.

"They look good," she said. "They taste good, and they're made to be attractive to kids and everybody."

Last year, underage drinkers in the state spent $228 million on alcohol, Alleva said. Beer, no longer the first alcoholic drink of choice, comes up short against vodka, she said. More recently, Sparks energy drinks containing beer joined the lineup.

But Miller Brewing Co. spokesman Pete Marino said Sparks is not marketed to underage customers.

"Sparks was created solely for the consumption of legal drinking age consumers," Marino said. "There is no nonalcoholic version of Sparks."

Still, Alleva cited an incident where a York Junior High School student purchased what she thought was an energy drink before playing soccer. But that drink contained alcohol, Alleva said.

The student consumed the drink, "and all of a sudden she felt sick to her stomach," Alleva said.

Exactly which section of the store the girl purchased the drink from is unknown, but Marino said Sparks is supposed to be isolated.

"We provide our distributors and retailers with information to ensure that Sparks is only sold in the alcoholic beverage section of stores and only sold to legal drinking age consumers," he said.

So how can York County keep alcoholic drinks out of the hands of underage drinkers? Officials said the effort starts with parents.

York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant challenged parents to take a stance against underage drinking.

"When they walk in their child's room and see a pretty bottle, pick it up, look at the contents and question the child about where he got the bottle," Bryant said.

Parents who provide alcohol to underage people may earn cool points with teens, but they can end up in jail, said Michelle Nienhius of the S.C. Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services.

"It is not OK for them to host an underage drinking party in their house," Nienhius said. "We want to stop that mindset among our parents."

Merchants also play a role in stopping underage alcohol consumption, Brackett said.

"Merchants need to make sure that the people they sell to are 21 and older," he said. "They need to check IDs."

While store clerks are improving in countywide checks, officials want 100 percent compliance.

In 2006, authorities conducted 66 compliance checks in Rock Hill, said police Chief John Gregory. Twenty-three purchases were made by underage people, so Gregory's department stepped up its enforcement in 2007.

So far this year, 43 stores have been cited. The department also crashed some parties and have charged 12 people with underage drinking. Police also have charged 36 bars with alcohol violations.

On average in the state, 20 percent of stores fail compliance checks, Gregory said.