Beware the bear.

That's the warning being sent to hundreds of schools and police agencies around the state, asking them to watch for kids getting drunk by eating Gummi bears soaked in vodka.

The vodka is odorless and, depending how much booze is used, the bears maintain their relative shape, making it difficult to spot them at sports games, at dances or even in classrooms.

In the past month, warnings about the Gummi bear threat have gone out from the state Health Department, the Hennepin County Regional Poison Center and the Dakota County Attorney's office.

When Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom sent out a warning to schools about the bears in mid-October, "they were as surprised as I was," he said. "They were as alarmed as I was."

Jay Jaffee, chemical health coordinator at the Minnesota Department of Health, said the drunken Gummi bears phenomenon is gaining traction through the Internet, with how-to videos and YouTube clips readily available to anyone.

"The Internet gives things life," he said. "Kids are drinking way more than their parents. It's the difference between having dial up and broadband."

Mike Eliason, a school resource officer at Apple Valley High School, said his sons at Mankato State and St. Cloud State universities have reported seeing people getting intoxicated swallowing the bears.

"I have no doubt in my mind that [teenage] kids are doing it," said Eliason, a board member and past president of the Minnesota Juvenile Officers Association. "We may not see it in schools but that doesn't mean it's not happening."

The boozy bears are but the latest example of kids ingesting alcohol in ways that might surprise or shock adults, say state and local authorities who monitor the drinking habits of youth.

In the past few months, reports have also surfaced nationally of kids -- boys and girls -- inserting vodka-soaked tampons into their bodies, funneling booze into their rectums and even placing open liquor bottles against their corneas in a practice known as "eyeballing," or absorbing booze through the blood vessels in the eye. All are ways to absorb alcohol through the skin, bypassing the digestive system and getting the alcohol straight to the bloodstream.

"People are capable of doing any number of crazy things," Jaffee said. "I don't think that it is everywhere [in Minnesota], but I suspect that there is somebody somewhere who is trying some of this."

Games that aren't funny

Jaffee said the Gummi bears and drinking games such as Edward Fortyhands (where a 40-ounce bottle of beer is taped to a each hand) are no laughing matter. He and others warn that such activities mask the destructive nature of alcohol.

He notes that studies show Minnesota is among the top 5 states for binge drinking, neck and neck with Wisconsin, Iowa and the two Dakotas.

"Nothing surprises me anymore," Jaffee said. "Alcohol is definitely the drug of choice throughout the country and throughout Minnesota."

He estimates that drinking contributes to the death of 60 kids in the state each year. Most deaths are from drinking-and-driving accidents, but every once in a while one is caused by alcohol poisoning.

A national problem

Dr. Dan Quan of the Maricopa Medical Center in Phoenix had not heard of so-called drunken Gummi bears. But as an emergency room doctor, he is familiar with the use of vodka-infused tampons.

A couple years ago, he said, the daughter of a nurse reported that a friend passed out at her high school from alcohol poisoning after inserting a vodka-soaked tampon.

"It's probably more widespread than we think," Quan said. "The effects are pretty quick. The vaginal walls are pretty thin. The biggest problem is that if they do pass out, we don't know where to look."

Although no students have been caught in Minnesota as yet, no one doubts that kids are soaking Gummi bears with booze or finding other creative ways to get drunk.

"We talked about it at our last meeting," said Ann Lindberg, chemical health coordinator for the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan School District in Dakota County. "I'm sure it is happening here to some degree. We just haven't caught anyone at it yet."

Heron Marquez • 952-746-3281