Baby billboard targets teen drinking

October 13, 2009 12:54:11 PM PDT
A billboard image along Route 154 in eastern Connecticut of an infant with a beer bottle to his lips is unforgettable - and that's just what the designers had in mind. The "Together We Can Coalition to Stop Underage Drinking" billboard may evoke a wide range of emotions like anger, shock, disgust or humor, but proponents said it gets their message across.

The caption - "You wouldn't do that then ... why now?" - along with a photograph of two teenagers, drives the point home.

"I can understand some people are disturbed by (the billboard), and we contemplated those concerns at the photo shoot," said Gail Onofrio, who works with the coalition through the Tri-Town Youth Services Bureau Inc. "The baby's mother suggested the (photographic) shot. Most importantly, the audience is not kids - it's parents. Parents should be as outraged to see teens drinking as they are when they see a baby drinking."

For the record, Onofrio said the bottle was empty and had been washed and sterilized before it was put to the baby's mouth.

"We hear that the billboard's gotten people talking, and that's what we want," Onofrio said. "There has been, in the past, a sense from parents that if their kids drink at home, the parents can supervise. We now know that alcohol affects the development of the brain."

This campaign - two more billboards are expected to be up by the end of the month and stay through November - coincides with a statewide police crackdown on underage drinking.

Currently, there are billboards up in Middletown and Deep River along Route 154.

Among the more noteworthy recent incidents were 20 Branford teenagers cited for underage drinking after undercover officers infiltrated two house parties, and the detaining of 23 minors in East Haven for possession of alcohol.

There was also the underage drinking party recently in Wilton with parents in attendance. Donald and Heidi Spinola, of 9 New St., were arrested and charged with serving alcohol to minors. A judge denied the couple accelerated rehabilitation in September and they are due back in court Oct. 27.

"There's been some controversy, but any attempt to get young people's attention about the dangers of underage drinking is important," said Lt. Paul Vance of the Connecticut State Police.

"Underage drinking is dangerous, on the road and at home. Quite frankly, if these efforts reach one set of parents who keep their kids from drinking, the billboard's done its job."

Anthony Bondi, first selectman in Haddam, was not familiar with the billboard, but he was familiar with the subject.

"Speaking as a grandfather, certainly alcohol shouldn't be consumed by underage people," said Bondi, who lamented the trend of kids growing up too quickly. "Children are closer in habits to parents nowadays. We have young adults now when we used to have young children."

Anita Ford Saunders, who provides "Together We Can" with public relations consulting, was proud to be a part of this controversial effort.

"It's a great campaign, and the purpose (of the billboard) is to direct the message to the parents," Saunders said. "I adore these ladies because they pushed the envelope. They know how important this issue is. Friends tell me they love the billboard.

The mother of the baby was great, and I'm pleased with the way it came out -- and the message it's sending. Parents are the key to solving this ongoing problem of underage drinking."

Tri-Town is a nonprofit agency that coordinates, develops and provides services dedicated to promoting the positive growth and development of youth and families in Chester, Deep River and Essex, according to its Web site.

Youth and Family Services organizations from East Haddam, Haddam and Killingworth combine with Tri-Town to form Together We Can.

The billboard initiative was paid for through a federal Strategic Prevention Framework State Incentive Grant by way of the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

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