Alcohol's escape, thrills ensnaring younger teens Heavy drinking starts as early as 9 or 10

August 18, 1991|By Ellen Uzelac Joel McCord of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

If he makes it through today, 15-year-old Troy will have stayed sober for 17 days -- a significant marker for a boy who has believed since the age of 13 that without alcohol, there would be no Troy.

2 "I'm just now starting to get used to myself."

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Another 15-year-old, Brian Ball, died last Sunday of alcohol poisoning after reportedly downing 26 shots of liquor at an all-you-can-drink teen party on the Eastern Shore. The youth's death has focused attention on alcohol use by teens, many of whom are already seasoned drinkers by the time they reach puberty.

Alcohol use by American children has reached such alarming proportions that U.S. Surgeon General Antonia C. Novello has made it a personal crusade. A federal survey of junior and senior high school students released in June showed that at least 8 million teen-agers use alcohol on a weekly basis and that many of them drink to handle stress.

"I'm afraid there will be many more Brian Balls," Dr. Novello said. "You've got to ask yourself: Is a human life worth three bucks?" Admission to the party where Brian drank himself to death cost $3.

"You can show a kid genetic surveys and liver enzyme studies, and they just don't get it," said Mike Maskovyiak, chemical dependency treatment coordinator for adolescents at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Baltimore.

"Look, we're seeing 9- and 10-year-olds who are actually trying to get drunk to escape. Folks better listen up quick because we've got a problem."

In the past year, Alcoholics Anonymous has been besieged with requests for new materials for teen alcoholics, and, across the country, alcohol education is beginning to take place as early as nursery school.

As the age of experimentation dips to as low as 9 and 10, publishers in the last year have begun to produce coloring books, picture books and affirmation books with spiritual messages for children as young as 4.

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Damon, 15, was scheduled to leave the Oakview Treatment Center in Ellicott City today. He has been sober and straight for 45 days. He doesn't have a home to go back to. His family was evicted from their Baltimore apartment a few months ago because of Damon's drinking parties.

"I just wanted to experiment with alcohol," says Damon, who started drinking at 11. "I saw people in beer commercials drinking -- just the look of it, they were all having fun. When I started, I drank for the taste of it. By the time I was 13, I was drinking to get drunk.

"When I heard about that boy dying, all I thought about was that it could have been me."

Alcohol remains the primary drug of choice among youth in Maryland, according to Melody McCoy Ryan, public information officer for the Governor's Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission. Marijuana is second. Nationwide, teen drinking has declined somewhat in recent years, but it continues to have a grip over teen-agers that Dr. Novella has called "shocking" and "disturbing."

At the Gilman School, peer counselor Jon Goldman, a senior, said that most students at the private boys' school have tried alcohol and that many drink every weekend. Frequently, party entertainment includes games such as "power hour," in which players drink a shot of beer every minute for an hour. He said it is not uncommon for students to pass out, get sick and not remember portions of a night.

At the same time, he said, students seem to have a growing awareness of the hazards of alcohol. Last weekend, for instance, a friend had 25 people over for a party while her parents were away.

"No one was drinking," Mr. Goldman said. "It kind of shocked me. I was impressed with my friends. I don't think you can tell your kid not to drink. I think you can make sure he knows about the hazards. I guess the word is getting out."

Three picture books for youngsters published by Minnesota-based Hazelden Educational Materials have titles taken from AA slogans: "One Day at a Time," "Easy Does It" and "Live and Let Live."

"The little ones just aren't getting identified," said David Ennis, director of treatment at Oakview. "No parent wants to think of their 10-year-old as drinking. Only as a kid reaches major crisis will a parent go public. They try to hide it and deal with it and fix it themselves. That's like finding a kid with a lump someplace and trying to fix it."

Michael Schiks, director of Hazelden Pioneer Center, a residential center for young recovering addicts in Plymouth, Minn., said: "The most frightening thing is that treatment centers are closing, and they are closing pretty significantly around the country. And it's not because there aren't kids out there who need help. The young kids are falling through the cracks, and the older kids either aren't getting help or they're going to jail."

A 1990 survey of Hazelden Pioneer residents showed that 17 percent began drinking at age 10 or younger, 20 percent at ages 11-12 and 34 percent at 13 and 14.

"It's real hard for a kid to stay sober in this society," said Mr. Schiks.

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