WESTBROOK, MAINE — Few people in Maine wanted to talk about the problem - one that has long hung over their state like a heavy haze.
It has been linked to 400 deaths a year, including up to 70 percent of all murders. But in this largely rural state, where residents often say there's not much to do but go to bars, the effects of alcohol abuse went largely undiscussed.
That changed last fall, when a high-profile newspaper series told stories of residents affected by drinking - including a girl whose parents gave her beer as a toddler to get her to sleep.
The series got people talking. Now, in the first such effort in the US, some 1,000 residents in 50 towns have been gathering weekly to discuss alcohol's impact - and figure out what to do about it.
It's only a first step, participants say. But if it succeeds, the idea holds the promise of transforming how Mainers think about alcohol and its effect on their lives. If other states follow Maine's lead, it could be as revolutionary as Mothers Against Drunk Driving was in the 1980s.
"It used to be like an elephant in the living room," says Mark Krogman, a Maine group leader. "Everybody knew it was there, but we all agreed not to talk about it."
Now that has changed.
On a recent Tuesday night in Westbrook, a town dominated by the belching smokestacks of a paper mill, residents gathered in an elementary school.
Surrounded by bookshelves full of worn volumes and seated at pint-sized tables designed for second-graders are an insurance saleswoman, a school committee member, a concerned mom, a graduate student studying counseling, and others - seven in all.
Each of them has had an experience that brought them here. Carleen Cook, the school board member, has a teenage son who was arrested for drunken driving. Rob Smith, the graduate student, grew up with both parents as alcoholics.
But this is no support group for participants to air personal traumas. They are here to talk about a problem that has troubled their entire state. Fifty-two percent of adults in Maine say someone in their family has a severe alcohol problem. And police say 80 to 90 percent of crimes have alcohol involved.
It has also troubled the nation: A recent US Department of Justice study found that 4 in 10 violent crimes nationwide involve alcohol, as do 4 in 10 fatal car crashes.
Putting their heads together
As the classroom's fluorescent lights buzz above the group, an early point of consensus emerges: Alcohol is much more pervasive - and therefore more harmful - than stronger drugs such as crack cocaine or heroin. They agree that state resources should be shifted from drug-prevention programs to anti-alcohol efforts.
"Alcoholism is costing the state and the nation billions of dollars," says Donna Gordon, a soft-spoken mother. "But the amount of money and effort that's going to address it is disproportionate."
Alcohol abuse in Maine costs the state an estimated $1 billion a year in medical treatment, insurance costs, prison sentences, and more. That's $853 for every resident. But last year the state spent $7.4 million on substance-abuse programs.
"Yeah, but where will we get the money?" one member asks.
Ruth Russell, one of the group's moderators, breaks the moment of stumped silence with a question: "Do you ever see the states going back to the liquor companies the way they're going after tobacco companies?"
"Yeah," adds Mr. Smith, the graduate student, "why shouldn't people who are making a lot of money and are causing a lot of people's suffering have some sort of responsibility for ameliorating that?"
Soon the focus shifts to children. The group is shocked by a finding of the newspaper series - that 45 percent of Maine high-schoolers say they've tried alcohol by age 13. Experts say kids are trying alcohol at younger and younger ages.
"I think kids are growing up too fast," opines Mrs. Cook, the school committee member, as others nod in agreement. "We're not giving our children time to be kids. We even have limos pulling up to the junior high. I thought a limo was maybe when you got married, although I didn't have one," she says, as laughter breaks out.
"By the time they get to high school, they've done so much that they're bored with what we have to offer," she adds. "Then they ask, 'What's next?' What's next is drinking and partying."
Ideas for change
When talk turns to solutions, the ideas range from statewide policy changes, such as a higher alcohol tax, to parents taking a stand. "Maybe we should have parents pledge that any party in their house will be alcohol-free," suggests Cook.
The group also agrees that afternoons are a crucial time when kids can drink or otherwise get in trouble. More needs to be done for them during that time. (See story below.)
The group's ideas are now being added to a list from all the other groups in the state. It will be presented to the elected officials at a May 3 meeting.
But the Westbrook residents agree it will take local efforts to bring change. They plan to meet again and try to move the entire community toward action.
Says Trudy Drapeau, a middle-school living-skills teacher: "All we can do is take baby steps."