Kids are not the problem

EMILIE BARATTA

June 15, 1992|By Emilie Baratta

REMEMBER Brian Ball? He was 15 when he died last summer of alcohol poisoning at a drinking party in Salisbury. His case brought the topic of "underage drinking" to the forefront, if only for a few weeks.

Unfortunately, most of the publicity focused on his young age and the bizarre circumstances of his death. But the larger problem was lightly passed over: American society in general cannot hold its liquor.

"Underage drinking is a serious problem," was the illuminating message sent forth from a recent press conference called by the Governor's Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission. Present were representatives of the U.S. surgeon general and the parents of Brian Ball.

Alcohol abuse is a problem that must be constantly addressed. Alcohol-related traffic accidents are the leading cause of death among young people. I am 17, so I was interested to hear what suggestions would emerge from this meeting.

Almost nothing I heard impressed me.

Kids -- young people -- are not the problem. Kids who abuse alcohol are victims of society's problems with alcohol. By "society," I am referring to adults, and the adults at the press conference, as well as the general adult population, sent a very mixed message.

Adults are allowed to drink; kids are not. Why? Alcohol abuse is a problem for both segments. Teen drinking has been identified as a problem; yet kids are bombarded with images of alcohol from the time they begin to watch TV. And children who grow up in a home where an adult has a problem with alcohol are exposed to alcohol abuse from the time they are born. Kids are constantly exposed to alcohol; are they expected to ignore it?

Alcohol abuse is a debilitating problem, and if adults are seriously concerned about underage drinking and the damage it can do, they first need to recognize the appalling double standard that is inherent in their present approach.

The surgeon general found that 8 million teens drink weekly. This is a disturbing statistic. But another federal survey found that 64 percent of those between 18 and 25 -- more than 18 million Americans -- and 63 percent of those between 26 and 34 -- more than 23 million Americans -- had consumed alcohol within the previous month. Furthermore, a 1988 study found that more than 15 million people abuse alcohol.

So the underage drinking statistics shadow those of the "of-age" drinking, adult population. Kids are not deviating from the norm; they are following the example already established by their parents and role models.

Furthermore, it appears that more effort has been spent discussing how kids drink than on determining why kids drink. Half of high school seniors drink. Of those, a third indulge in five or more drinks at a sitting. That's called "binging." Clearly there are many kids who do not drink "responsibly." But in a 1990 Gallup Poll, 23 percent of adults surveyed said they sometimes drink more than they think they should. Accurate results are hard to come by because many adults deny they have a problem or can't "hold their liquor." If adults won't even admit to a problem, how can they decry drinking by "those irresponsible young people"?

And why isn't it called "binge drinking" when a 21-year-old sits in a bar and proceeds to get "butt-drunk" by consuming five beers? Why is it that adults ponder the question of underage drinking when the alcoholic beverage industry spends some $2 billion each year promoting it. The bulk of this money is spent on TV advertising, and young people are a target audience. People in beer commercials are having a wonderful life! The ads show young, bikini-clad models and happy-go-lucky, sexually repressed males running about with a beer and a smile. Drinking is the solution to life's problems, is it not? Why worry about it?

Why ask why?

The surgeon general suggests that kids caught drinking should have their licenses revoked and be required to perform community service. These are good ideas. The idea of losing my license scares me. But it is a cop-out to fantasize that legislation directed at young people will have a notable impact.

The emphasis should be on adults, especially the most important adults: parents.

Parents should have more of an influence on their kids than the law. And they do. According to a study done in Maryland, the degree of parental supervision is reflected in kids' drinking habits. Nearly 84 percent of non-drinking students had an adult in the house when they went to sleep at night; only 68 percent of drinking students had this supervision. Eighty-seven percent of non-drinking students knew that someone would worry about them if they were late from school; in contrast, less than 78 percent who drank enjoyed this kind of parental involvement.

Parents cannot continue to be excused from their responsibilities to their children. Kids' long-term perception of alcohol and its role in everyday life is first established by their parents' attitude toward alcohol. And parents cannot comfortably ignore the fact that it is likely their kids will or do drink. Not that drinking in itself is evil; it isn't. But excessive drinking leads to crime, rape and death. Because of their lack of involvement, parents are more a part of the problem than they are a help to their kids.

Alcoholism among youth is no less a problem than alcoholism among adults. Adults are going to drink. Kids are going to drink. Drinking in excess is the real problem for all age groups. Instead of absolutely condemning underage consumption of alcohol, while adults are free to hit the forbidden fruit at their leisure, drinking responsibly should be emphasized to adults and kids alike.

Emilie Baratta graduated Friday from Bryn Mawr School.

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