By Rob Christensen, News and Observer
Jim Gardner has played an astonishing number of roles in North Carolina’s civic, political and business life.
He has been a congressman, lieutenant governor, three-time candidate for governor, state Republican Party chairman, co-founder of Hardee’s, founder of Gardner’s Barbecue, owner of the Carolina Cougars basketball team and commissioner of the American Basketball Association.
Now at age 81, Gardner is setting out to do something about underage drinking – a problem that crosses every demographic line.
Gardner took on the task because Gov. Pat McCrory appointed him chairman of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. But he also says he’s doing it because he has nine grandchildren, including six in college.
“We lose one child per week in North Carolina to an underage drinking-related accident,” Gardner said last week during a visit to The News & Observer.
Since the state sells alcohol, Gardner says, North Carolina should also be involved in trying to prevent alcohol abuse. It is not just high school and college kids getting into trouble drinking too much.
A middle school problem
Children as young as middle school are now drinking, Gardner said. The medium age for young people to take their first drink is age 13.9.
“The big problem we encountered is it starts in middle school with 11 and 12 and 13-year-olds,” Gardner said. “I was not prepared for that. That to me was an astounding figure.”
After conferring with McCrory, Gardner got the go-ahead to form a task force to begin an anti-drinking initiative. He looked at other states, particularly Utah, which has an 8-year-old program aimed at youth drinking.
“I began to formulate an idea that we could could do something to change the culture that is is OK to drink under 21,” Gardner said. “But it was going to take money; we couldn’t talk it away. And it was going to take time.”
The ABC Commission took a statewide survey of both adults and children, and the children thought it was a much more serious problem than the adults. It found that parents are both unaware of the seriousness of the problem and are not equipped to talk about it.
The ABC Commission has hired Eckel & Vaughan, a Raleigh public relations and advertising agency, to develop a multimedia campaign aimed at parents to help them talk to their kids about drinking.
Legislative funding needed
That campaign will begin this fall with $1.5 million in funding using ABC money, approved by the state budget office. But he said any true effort will require $3 million in annual funding and legislative approval.
Gardner said he will be spending much of his time next year lobbying the legislature to fund the program. He said it is difficult to get any money out of the legislature, even though the ABC Board generates $600 million in profits.
Gardner, who was the cutting-edge voice for conservativism in North Caroina in the 1960s before Jesse Helms was elected, understands the irony. He got the conservative Republican legislature he has dreamed of for decades and now has to figure out a way to get them to loosen the purse strings for a good cause.
Not that he is complaining.
It was 50 years ago that Gardner burst onto the Tar Heel political scene. A half century later, Gardner is starting a new initiative to reduce dangerous drinking among young people. Which may help explain why he looks and acts like a much younger man.