Lincoln County has a drinking problem. Hard drinking has been something that has been a part of local history since the first miners went underground and the first loggers trudged into the woods.
What has changed is the prevailing attitude toward binge and youth drinking in the 21st century.
When the veneer is peeled back, some stark figures are revealed.
“We have one of the highest alcohol-use rates in the nation,” said Lincoln County Sheriff Roby Bowe. “That didn’t just happen overnight.”
In 2012, the percentage of eighth-graders in Lincoln County who admitted to having an alcoholic drink in the past 30 days was a staggering 40.6 percent. In 2008, it was 22.2 percent.
With the county’s high unemployment rate and high rate of mental illness, alcohol abuse runs rampant.
Excessive drinking, according to statistics on www.countyhealthrankings.org,is defined by drinking more than four (for women) or five (for men) drinks on one occasion in the last 30 days. A full 17 percent of Lincoln County residents admitted to binge drinking, the same rate as Deer Lodge and Park counties.
Lincoln County, according to data on a 2010 Montana Department of Transportation report on “Montana’s impaired-driving problem,” was home to 14.7 percent of all auto crashes linked with alcohol or drug involvement statewide.
As for fatal crashes, that rate rises to 49 percent.
The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department cited 260 DUIs in 2012, with the average blood alcohol content of a driver at 0.164, more than twice the legal limit.
The average age a Lincoln County child’s first drinks alcohol is 10-and-a-half years old. The national average is 12-and-a-half years old.
Maggie Anderson, Unite for Youth Coalition representative, said those statistics show trouble for the county’s youth.
Anderson said Lincoln County was the worst in the nation in regards to youth-drinking rates in 2008.
“Our kids were partying harder than any kids in the nation,” she said. “With this came prescription drug abuse and the links with illegal behavior that brings.”
Anderson and Bowe, making a presentation to Troy School Board No. 1, cautioned that alcohol and youth can serve not only to create alcoholism problems later in life, but serve as a gateway drug into prescription-medication or harder drugs. Both meth and heroin are also on the rise in the county.
“It’s been a delicate situation where no one really wants to handle it,” Bowe said of the alcohol culture in the county. “Some people choose to ignore it unless it effects them personally.”
Not all the statistics point in one direction, however. Kendra Hageness, Chief Juvenile Officer at Lincoln County’s Youth Court, said the number of under-18 Minor in Possession (MIP) charges has been consistent, even tailing off. There were 42 cases in 2010, 40 in 2011 and 38 in 2012.
In the last two months, there has been just one MIP for those under-18 kids.
“During graduation and summertime it picks up,” Hageness said. “Ten years ago it was closer to 110, 120 cases a year. I believe there are a lot of kids out there drinking, but our numbers don’t show it.”
Sheriff Bowe agreed, saying the number of MIPs might not reflect reality.
“Kids nowadays are smarter because of technology,” he said. “Before, they would show up in a circle and decide where to go drink. We’d just follow the beer cans.”
The ubiquitous presence of cell phones makes deciding on a safe location easier for teens and young adults to drink alcohol.
Getting booze has never been a problem for Lincoln County kids, Anderson said.
What is most worrying about these numbers are how drastically the rates of alcoholism rise when kids consume alcohol. If a child drinks before he or she turns 15, the rate of alcoholism is increased by five times.
Half of all alcoholics diagnosed in this country exhibited signs of the disease before they turned 21, and two-thirds before 25.
Bowe is reaching out to the community for help battling this problem. Anyone with ideas, comments or questions can reach his direct line at 293-4112, ext. 230.
“It’s slowly getting better,” he said. “It takes time and effort from the whole community.”