Young and drunk

March 10, 2003

ASK THEM: It is impossible to legislate, criminalize or scare teen-agers into making smart choices about alcohol so long as popularity depends on sharing a six-pack. It's even harder to teach the value of sobriety if some parents condone illegal drinking by supplying the booze for parties.

This isn't an argument for prohibition, it's an appeal for sanity about a rite of passage that starts too young and gets out of control too often.

Several national surveys of teens report many began drinking at age 12; by senior year in high school, half of the students say they drink every weekend - and much of it is bingeing, not sipping. A much-disputed study released Feb. 26 by Columbia University's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse says teens account for about 20 percent of alcohol consumed in the United States, some $22.5 billion worth; distillers don't buy it.

Whatever the figure, it's too high, say pediatricians. They warn that teen drinking is often a precursor to drug abuse, premarital sex and worse. News headlines confirm it: How cool it must have seemed when dad allegedly supplied the beer last month at a Westminster girls' basketball team slumber party, until one of the 17-year-olds ended up his bedmate. Dad was charged with child abuse and providing alcohol to teens; school officials suspended the students from sports for the rest of the year.

But there's little use itemizing for teens the blackouts, the car and property damage, the deaths caused by drunkenness. They don't believe it can happen to them.

State Sen. David R. Brinkley, a Frederick County Republican, thinks Maryland law should spell out that "consumption" by a minor, not just possession by or sales to a minor, is a crime. Doesn't that sound just like the answer to teen reasoning? You didn't say I couldn't drink it, you said I couldn't have it.

So what works? Dr. Oscar Taube, director of adolescent medicine at Children's Hospital at Sinai, cites long-term studies showing that parents who consistently monitor their children and make their values clear can deter and even reduce teen substance abuse.

Moderation is a personal responsibility and saying "no, thanks" is a skill: Both are best learned at home and reinforced by schools and parent groups.

While the distillers, scientists and activists wrangle with each other over the validity of studies quantifying teen drinking, the kids are on their cell phones planning their next party. Parents: Talk to them.

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