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April is National Alcohol Awareness Month, an opportunity to raise awareness of alcohol abuse and encourage people to make healthy, safe choices.

This year's theme, "Healthy Choices, Healthy Communities: Prevent Underage Drinking," highlights the important role that communities play in preventing underage drinking.

"Nearly 17 percent of young adults in California suffer from alcohol dependence or abuse," said Michael S. Cunningham, acting director of the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs. "Increasing awareness of the potential dangers of alcohol and how to prevent alcohol abuse is key to reducing this number."

Teens who experiment with alcohol before age 15 are four times more likely to become alcohol dependent when they are older than those who wait until age 20.

Education and prevention at a young age is critical in reducing alcoholism and alcohol-related problems.

Statistics from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in 2009 show that underage drinking in California was a factor in 141 traffic deaths; 239 homicides; 2,820 teen pregnancies; 114,500 nonfatal violent crimes such as rape, robbery and assault; and 179,000 property crimes including burglary, larceny and car theft.

Youth who experience depression and anxiety may use alcohol to self medicate. Those who are isolated from their family system without other positive connections may get begin to get involved with peer groups that use alcohol and/or drugs. Other circumstances that can put youth at increased risk for alcohol use are pervasive family or school-related stress, poor coping skills, and family members with drug or alcohol problems.