The little-known but alarming facts surrounding alcohol consumption by children ages 9 to 15 have prompted more than 25 Governors' Spouses to join forces and put this issue on the national agenda. Today they launched Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free, a multi-year, public-private partnership focused on preventing the use of alcohol by children, funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) at the National Institutes of Health and The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Alcohol is the number one drug of choice among the nation's youth and it can have serious, often lifelong, consequences for them, their families and their communities. The Governors' spouses; federal and state agencies; a major private foundation; national, state and local nonprofit agencies and professional associations have joined together to raise awareness of the problem and develop effective interventions.

"Scientific evidence shows that the earlier children begin drinking the more likely they are to develop serious alcohol problems in their lifetime," says Enoch Gordis, M.D., Director of NIAAA. "Put simply, our nation can no longer ignore alcohol use by children."

"Underage alcohol use is a significant threat to the health and safety of our children. It is time for us to come to grips with this widespread, devastating public health problem," noted Steven A. Schroeder, M.D., President and CEO of The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation's largest foundation devoted exclusively to health and health care.

The extent of alcohol consumption by children ages 9 to 15 is startling, and preventing it must become a national priority. Consider these facts:

3 million children ages 14 through 17 are regular drinkers who already have a confirmed alcohol problem.

24 percent of eighth graders have used alcohol in the last 30 days.

More than 100,000 12-13 year-olds binge drink every month.

Ninth graders who drink are almost twice as likely to attempt suicide as those who don't.

40 percent of children who begin drinking before the age of 15 will become alcoholics at some point in their lives.

The two-day conference that officially launches the national effort will examine the scope and nature of the problem, then showcase promising activities that address underage drinking by children as young as nine years old.

States participating in the conference include:

Alaska - Susan Knowles, First Lady, Leadership Committee Member
Alabama
Arkansas - Janet Huckabee, First Lady
Connecticut
District of Columbia - Diane Williams, First Lady
Florida - Columba Bush, First Lady, Leadership Committee Member
Georgia
Hawaii
Idaho - Patricia Kempthorne, First Lady, Leadership Committee Member
Illinois
Maine
Michigan
Montana
Nebraska
New Hampshire
New Mexico
New York
North Carolina
Ohio - Hope Taft, First Lady, Leadership Committee Co-Chair
Oklahoma
Oregon - Sharon Kitzhaber, First Lady, Leadership Committee Co-Chair
Pennsylvania - Michele Ridge, First Lady, Leadership Committee Co-Chair
Tennessee - Martha Sundquist, First Lady, Leadership Committee Member
Virginia
West Virginia - Hovah Underwood, First Lady
Wisconsin - Sue Ann Thompson, First Lady, Leadership Committee Member
Wyoming

Five plenary discussions will explore all aspects of the problem as well as programs and activities from around the country that have shown promise in reducing underage drinking. Among the sessions are:

Science, Kids and Alcohol, exploring the impact of alcohol on developing children. The Environment in Which Kids Live, examining peer pressure, social norms, media messages and the impact of the Internet on children. A Youth Roundtable, during which children and young people will share their experiences. An Exploration of Promising Programs & Activities, including a series of panel discussions on Parents and Schools Working Together, Youth As Partners, Community and State-Wide Efforts, and Youth-Related Alcohol Policies.

The conference will close Friday, March 24, 2000 with a Signing Ceremony in which Governors' Spouses and state representatives will sign a "Pledge to Our Children." The Signing Ceremony will be followed by the fifth plenary session, a discussion among all program participants about the next steps for Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free and its drive to put underage drinking on the national agenda.

In addition, throughout the two-day conference, participants will be working with renowned artist Xavier Cortada to create a mural that will speak to the problem of children and alcohol and the energy and commitment that participants bring to the effort to put underage drinking on the national agenda.