It's illegal in Maryland for youths to drink alcohol outside the home. But they can easily evade the law and police sometimes are lax in enforcing it.
This problem transcends state borders, says a new federal study provocatively subtitled: "Is the 21-year-old drinking age a myth?"
"State laws, we have discovered, are riddled with loopholes, laxity and lip service," U.S. Surgeon General Antonia C. Novello said at a news conference yesterday in Washington. "The result is that two-thirds of the teen-agers who drink -- and that's almost 7 million boys and girls -- get their booze the easy way."
No alcohol vendor has ever lost his license solely for selling to minors, Novello said. She said sellers and youths should be held responsible and recommended that minors caught breaking alcohol laws be forced to do community service and automatically lose their driver licenses.
The parents of Brian Ball, the 15-year-old Texas boy who died following a teen-age drinking party in Salisbury a month ago, joined Novello in urging tougher laws and enforcement. They called on the news media, schools and parents to do a better job of informing kids about the dangers of drinking.
In Maryland, people under 21 may drink legally only as part of a religious ceremony or in their own homes, consuming alcohol furnished by their parents. Parents may not provide alcohol to other children, however.
But, in practice, alcohol is easy to obtain. Youths may be supplied by friends of drinking age, liquor store clerks who ignore the law or who are fooled by false identification, and even parents.
Statistics compiled by Maryland State Police show that last year 883 juveniles were arrested for non-automobile liquor law violations, a slight increase over the previous year. Another 1,018 were arrested for driving with alcohol in their system.
Gloria Merriam, chief of child, adolescent and family services for the state Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration, believes the problem isn't laws but attitudes.
"We don't even enforce the laws we have in place in a uniform fashion," she said. "Society has a very fragmented view of the consumption of alcohol by adolescents. There is a segment of society that wants to say, they'll outgrow it. . . .
"Then there is that segment of society that would say this is an illicit act and it should be curtailed and it should be monitored. And some of those different opinions are also within the police department, as well as within attorneys and within judges."
Baltimore County runs the kind of programs that the surgeon general apparently would like to see nationwide. Kids caught drinking must undergo evaluation and, if necessary, treatment for alcohol abuse, which encourages police to give citations, says Michael M. Gimbel, director of the county's office of substance abuse.
Six months ago the county formed an underage drinking task force after authorities learned of parties at which parents permitted children to drink. To help educate parents about alcohol and the law, the task force will send 20,000 letters to parents of middle and high school students.
The General Assembly has done something about phony identification cards. It passed a law permitting authorities to suspend the drivers license of anyone under 21 caught using a false ID to obtain alcohol, says Brenda Barnes, state administrator of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, an advocacy group.
Still, too many parents treat alcohol use by their children lightly, experts like Gimbel and Merriam say.
Novello said in an interview after the news conference that one approach to the problem might be to aim directly at what adolescents cherish -- their driving licenses.
She urged the automatic loss of a driver's license for youths caught breaking alcohol laws as a "very big" deterrent to an alarming underage drinking problem that affects almost 7 million teens in this country.
Existing penalties for minors range from $15 to $5,000 in fines and/or one year in jail.
But, they don't seem to work. "Parents will pay anything to keep their children out of jail and their records clean," Novello said.
"Even though there have been fines as high as $5,000 for vendors, there has never been a state license revocation of a vendor unless the offense tied the alcohol to drugs and to prostitution," she said.
Novello said that under federal law, everything dealing with the distribution and sale of alcohol is in the hands of the states and that state legislatures must begin "to tighten up their laws and make big changes."
The report noted that Maryland has two "creative methods" to enforce alcohol laws -- vendors and employees are trained to recognize methods minors use to obtain alcohol and the state suspends the licenses of minor drivers for violations of alcohol control laws.
But, the best two laws that states could have to counteract teen-age drinking, she said, are the "dram shop" laws, from the name of old English taverns, or the so-called "social host" laws.