A statewide campaign to mobilize workplaces and empower parents to eliminate underage drinking in Utah kicked off recently at the Capitol.

Building on a nationally unique and widely imitated public education effort begun in September 2006, business, government and community leaders in the state recommitted to eliminate underage drinking.

Despite the legal and cultural bans on drinking by minors, youths continue to drink — often obtaining alcohol from their parents — in Utah, and the danger to health and safety should not be minimized, a group of state government and business leaders said in announcing the campaign.

The danger is closer than people think, said three local car dealership owners who will be placing tags on rearview mirrors that invoke the permanent passenger side warning of objects being closer than they look: "Warning: Children in mirror are closer to drinking alcohol than they appear."

The message, which will be attached to all used and new cars, also states that underage binge drinking in Utah now begins in the sixth grade. Parents are advised to visit www.ParentsEmpowered.org to learn how to prevent it.

A similar message is to appear on 55 million grocery bags and posters in Associated Foods grocery stores. The campaign is taking a blanket approach, including wrapping ACE Disposal collection trucks with the message: "Saying underage drinking is harmless is a load of garbage."

"That statement is true," said Ruben Garza, human resources director with ACE. "And let me tell you, I know garbage."

According to the Century Council, a nonprofit organization funded by alcohol distillers, 17 percent of adults still believe it is acceptable for parents to provide alcohol to their teenagers in their own homes.

The latest research shows that 41 percent of kids who begin drinking before age 15 will become alcohol-dependent, and 67 percent will go on to try other illicit drugs. If teens wait until age 21 to drink, the odds of them becoming alcoholics drop to just 7 percent, and the odds that they'll ever abuse it or other drugs in their lives are even lower.

The campaign is not directed at youths, nor is it out to vilify alcohol, Art Brown, president of Utah's chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, told the Deseret Morning News.

"Parents setting clear rules will top peer pressure every time," Brown said. "They have the most influence, but most are starting about two years too late. They need to set and stick to rules for the family and do so early."

Parents who drink don't need to adopt a strict "do as I say" attitude. "Those who drink must set an example of moderation and above all make clear that in the household no one drinks before age 21. And if you have an alcohol supply at home, keep it locked."

Although in-home messages are the pivotal locations of influence, the campaign is using the workplace, offices, medical clinics, vending machines and lunchrooms to get the message out. It will appear on sticky notes, posters, brochure holders and newsletter articles.

The empowering parents campaign is not a "here's your brain on drugs" approach, largely abandoned by anti-drug public education campaigns. Utah's new campaign against methamphetamine, for example, is oriented toward raising awareness that young Utah mothers are statistically the most common users of the powerful stimulant. It doesn't highlight the harmful health effects of using it.

The alcohol campaign is more an advisory that underage drinking is to be taken seriously and that it is going on everywhere, said Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert. The point is not to scare parents, he said. But parents should be aware that alcohol use by teens stunts their memory, learning and impulse controls.

Herbert said it's also vital that parents realize drinking occurs in every neighborhood in every community across the state. He said state agencies will not only endorse, but also will actively participate in the campaign.

"Parents need to get this message," Herbert said.

E-mail: jthalman@desnews.com