Teen Drinking: A Killer

August 15, 1991

"I'd hate to think that this was for nothing. I want kids to come to the viewing, if I can handle an open casket, and look and touch the cold skin of my son and know that it could have been them."

The poignant anguish of Brian Ball's mother is easy to comprehend and remarkably insightful for so harsh a situation, the unexpected death of her son at age 15 of alcohol poisoning. He'd drunk 26 shots of hard liquor bought at a drinking party for teen-agers, unattended by adults, in a private house outside of Salisbury. What a waste, the life of this Texas boy visiting Maryland relatives.

We think Brian's death is having an impact already. The media coverage of this tragedy is vivid, dramatic and shocking. It will reach millions of teens and adults. The trick lies in keeping this momentary impact alive.

Brian's father said that teens have a distressing capacity for knowing that what happened to Brian can never happen to them. How many other 15-year-olds can anyone name who have died from drinking? And so, goes the attitude of too many teens, adults are only preaching to them, and preaching is a turn-off.

The simple truth is that kids learn to drink, not from other kids, but from adults. Far too many drink not only with the knowledge but the tacit approval of parents and other adults. In terms of metropolitan Baltimore, it starts in the city and any county you choose as early as middle school; ask any school principal, police agency or substance abuse program leader.

The issue of drinking by young people has been rising in public visibility in recent months. The nation's surgeon general, Dr. Antonia Novello, has been crusading against youth drinking for more than a year. Her office has found some shocking statistics, among them: 51 percent of junior and senior high school students (10.6 million kids) have had at least one drink in the last year; more than 5 million students have binged (consumed more than five drinks in a row), and teens drink 35 percent of all wine coolers sold in the United States and 1.1 billion cans of beer each year.

Young people are bombarded by messages of drinking being glamorous, acceptable and an enhancement to social acceptability. Perhaps Brian Ball's death will persuade adults to stop kidding themselves about teen drinking being just a giggle or a rite of passage. In Brian's case and in far too many others (often auto-related accidents), it has become a killer that cries out for immediate action by parents, the alcoholic beverage industry and the government.

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