Southern Maryland health officials will step up efforts to combat underage drinking this month with $27,500 state grants for each county. The grants, offered statewide, are to be used as seed money for counties to develop their own prevention programs.

Members of Calvert County's task force on underage drinking hosted a celebration yesterday to mark the kickoff of the county's campaign to change public perceptions about alcohol.

Carole Raucheisen, Calvert's alcohol and drug abuse prevention coordinator, said the grant money will be used to create databases that track alcohol-related arrests, underage alcohol use and checks of vendors' compliance with laws forbidding sales to minors. A pamphlet aimed at parents and an alcohol-free New Year's Eve party also are in the works.

"Alcohol is the number one drug of choice by most youths today," Raucheisen said. "I can remember a time when kids didn't drink. . . . Each year, it becomes a little more accepted."

In St. Mary's County, awareness activities such as school assemblies, billboards and radio advertisements are being phased in, with an emphasis on the upcoming holiday season, said coordinator Joseph Donick. A multimedia presentation was shown at county schools during the past couple of weeks, and there are plans to allocate grant money to "Cops in Shops," a program that places police officers in stores where alcohol is sold.

Charles County's biggest initiative will be assessing all adolescents who receive an alcohol-related citation from sheriff's officers, said Shirley Lamb, director of Substance Abuse Services. Youths who receive citations will undergo evaluations, with the results provided to the Department of Juvenile Justice as well as to parents.

"One of the barriers to getting kids in [for prevention and treatment] has been their own denial, but also parents who say, 'Why should I pay for something like that?' " Lamb said. "For the first time, this allows us to provide that service--and at no cost to parents."