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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Gov. Gary R. Herbert joins other state leaders and officials from Parents Empowered in the Gold Room of the state Capitol Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013 talking about the program geared to eliminate underage drinking.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah may have the lowest underage drinking rate in the United States, but experts say it's still a problem.

And it's a problem parents can do something about.

"Clearly, we are doing better than the national average," said Doug Murakami, Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control education director. "But for the kids that do drink, the average starting age is 13. It's not something parents can just begin to talk about when their kid begins high school, and that's what we're trying to get across." 

Gov. Gary Herbert has proclaimed January to be Parents Empowered month as part of an ongoing campaign to decrease underage drinking in Utah. The Parents Empowered campaign is in its seventh year, but this is the first time the program is receiving heightened publicity during January.

"I'm calling upon all parents, guardians and people who have influence with our young people … to have a frank and open discussion about when is the appropriate time to start drinking," Herbert said Wednesday.

"If we care about our children's safety, this is a good step toward helping protect them by making them aware of the consequences," he said.

The governor stressed that the typical teenage brain is especially susceptible to potentially addictive substances.

"Let's give (teenagers) all the opportunity in the world to … have the best quality of life they can possibly have," he said. "I would suggest to us all that being dependent on alcohol is not a good way to have to live your life."

Murakami credits the family-centric approach of the Parents Empowered movement for Utah's low underage drinking rate. 

"We want to warn parents of the harms and also provide the necessary skills," he said. "If they perceive from their parents even a slight bit of acceptability to it, they're much more likely to try doing it." 

The three skills listed by Parents Empowered for preventing underage drinking are bonding, setting boundaries and monitoring children's behavior. 

"The No. 1 indicator of whether or not kids choose to experiment with alcohol is the perception of parental disapproval," said first lady Jeanette Herbert. "It's not about being helicopter parents. It is about knowing … the who, what, where and why."

Sen. Peter Knudson, R-Brigham City, speaking at a press conference Wednesday, agreed that parents bear the brunt of responsibility for prevention. 

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"Make your disapproval of underage drinking absolutely clear," he said. "Underage drinking isn't harmless. It's not a rite of passage. It's a problem that needs to be solved, and parents are the solution." 

Steve Wright, public affairs director at R&R Partners, said underage drinking overall has dropped in Utah since the campaign was initiated seven years ago. Underage binge drinking, however, has seen a slight increase. 

"The campaign is working," said Wright, who has been heavily involved with the Parents Empowered campaign. "But we still have so much work to do when thousands of kids are binge drinking each weekend. Ultimately, it's against the law."

E-mail: blockhart@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @benlockhart89