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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah has the lowest rate of underage drinking in the nation, according to the results of a new study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. However, those who work with teens and substance abuse say there is still room for improvement.
Only 14.3 percent of Utah's 12- to 20-year-olds consumed alcohol in the last month, according to the survey. That compares to 26.6 percent nationwide.
The study combined data gathered between 2008 and 2010 for the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Teens were asked to self-report whether they had consumed alcohol in the last month and whether they had purchased the alcohol themselves.
More than double the percentage of teens were drinking in the last month in Vermont, which came in at a whopping 37.0 percent.
Regionally, the northeast had the highest rates of consumption while the South had the lowest.
Utah experts said the number is not surprising because there is less alcohol in homes generally, but they say we can be do better.
Alcohol remains one of the most dangerous health issues for American teenagers. Doctors say it negatively affects family relationships, schoolwork and job performance.
"In the lives of a child, it can impair your ability to actually function in society," said Primary Children's Center psychiatrist Scott Whittle.
Though the rate of consumption might be low in Utah, there are still problems. According to the survey, it may be slightly easier for Utah's underage drinkers to purchase their own alcohol than in three other states.
3.2 percent of Utah teens who drank in the last month purchased the alcohol that they drank themselves. That number was lowest In New Mexico at 2.5 percent, followed by Idaho and Oregon at 2.6 percent. New York came in highest with 15 percent.
Generally though, that the rate of underage purchasing means Utah's laws are working at eliminating sales to youth. But it also means teens get alcohol at home or at a friend's house.
Above all, SAMHSA officials stressed that underage drinking is a serious problem.
"Underage drinking should not be a normal part of growing up," said SAMHSA Administrator Pamela S. Hyde. "It's a serious and persistent public health problem that puts our young people and our communities in danger."
Hyde said underage drinking is associated with poor academic performance, sexual assault, injury and death.
Alcohol still tops the list of abused substances in the state, according to Susahhah Burt, the program manager for Parents Empowered.
"Kids are drinking as young as sixth grade and that's startling to a lot of parents and we often have the conversation too late," Burt said.
No matter the statistic, if you are worried about your teen's drinking, help is available from organizations like Parents Empowered.
"I think that there's a barrier for parents to bring children in, thinking that solutions are not available or they feel hopeless," Whittle said. "I'd like to tell people that isn't the case. That if they intervene, there are chances for good outcomes."