Nov. 23, 2011— -- This is not your average bear.
Colorful gummy bears are being transformed into "boozy bears" or "drunken gummies," alcohol-laden candies that kids as young as middle-school-aged may be eating right under their teachers' noses.
Florida health officials are warning schools about the latest craze -- kids soaking gummies in alcohol and bringing them to school in clear plastic bags.
Apparently the gummy "worms" work the best for the purpose. Officials from the Lake County Safe Climate Coalition, a nonprofit group that targets youth substance abuse, have experimented themselves.
"Of course, we tried it," said the group's executive director, Debi MacIntyre. "You lay a couple of them in the bottom of a pan and the alcohol is gone by morning. They are long and skinny, and they actually plump up quite big."
These clandestine treats have been reported in New York and Nebraska, as well.
Two Florida teens told ABC News' Fort Myers, Fla., affiliate, WZVN, also known as ABC News-7, that drunken gummies are the latest trend in hiding alcohol use.
"I have to say they're pretty good," said Adam, 17.
"If [my parents] saw gummies in my backpack, I think they'd think, 'Oh, that's nice,' and not think anything of it," echoed Sarah, 17.
"It has a kick to it because of the alcohol, and it's fruity also," she said. "It's good. It would be better than taking a shot because shots just go down gross. So you just take a handful of gummies."
Cape Coral, Fla., police have also been warning parents about the candies, which are potent enough to make a child or teen drunk. One officer ate the gummies for one hour and was too drunk to drive, according to WZVN.
Numerous websites offer instructions on how to prepare the boozy candies: Put them in a flat cake pan and fill with alcohol. It absorbs within 24 hours, expanding the little bears to twice their size. Vodka gummy bears even have their own Facebook page.
"Yes, they're great, but sticky," said one Facebook user.
Lake County, Fla., officials first heard about the trend from their colleagues in Jacksonville.
"Our concern is just to let people know, because Lake County is a suburban rural county outside Orlando and we tend to copy what other kids are doing," said MacIntyre. "If they are doing it in Jacksonville, it will catch on quickly here.
"We are letting principals know what to expect," she said. "As a former teacher and principal, if I see a kid pull gummy bears out of a baggie left over from his brother's Halloween bag, now that they are soaking them with vodka and gin I will think twice about it."
Vodka Gummy Bears Preceded By Energy Drinks
The craze before vodka gummies were alcohol-laden energy drinks packed in juice boxes imported from Puerto Rico.
Teens are always finding new ways to surreptitiously engage in drinking, according to experts.
"Alcohol is such a rite of passage," said MacIntyre. "I have never seen a county so embedded in alcohol -- every function has alcohol in the middle of it."
At one time, Lake County was the sixth-top-county for underage drinking in Florida, but the coalition's prevention efforts pushed it down to 29th.
A 2011 public health report from the National Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University revealed nine out of 10 Americans who meet the medical criteria for addiction began smoking, drinking or using other drugs before the age of 18.
Addiction is a "disease of adolescent origins," according to its report, and 72.5 percent of all high school students have drunk alcohol.
Susan Pitman, executive director of Safe and Healthy Duval County Coalition in Jacksonville, Fla., said the group's research shows that the vodka gummy bear craze was being reported on low-level blogs as far back as 2009.
"But now it's gone viral," she said. "We went to the Deval County Schools and opened up a Ziploc bag and they smelled them and said, "Oh my gosh.' We had no idea."
Most school officials "won't admit" the trend yet, according to Pitman.
"There is wide-spread use among the kids," she said. "We have a youth coalition and they say, 'Yeah, people are doing it right in front of teachers and parents.'"
In Florida, schools are required by law to report incidents of alcohol use to a student resource officer, but most administrators prefer to handle them internally.
"A bunch of cases could be quietly handled by administrators," she said. "We are a prevention organization and stay on top of the trends and figure out strategic ways to change behavior on the front end, rather than be punitive and be reactive at the back end."
Both Lake and Duval counties are targeting retailers who put ping-pong balls next to beer [for beer pong games] and asking their youth groups to notice the ways that alcohol retailers encourage the young to drink. In one project, they asked the groups to visit local fairs and report how alcohol is being used or abused.
Research on teens reveals that their frontal lobes -- the part of the brain that controls executive decision making and impulse control -- are not yet fully developed, making them prone to poor choices.
"Weighing the pros and cons and seeking solutions are beyond their capacity," said Pitman. "They are not bad or stupid -- they are just not able to do it yet. I look back to my teens. They think they are invincible."