Get real on teen drinking

May 25, 2004|By Nicholas Leonhardt

"MY CUP runneth over."

This biblical image usually symbolizes happiness. But when that cup holds alcohol and the fingers grasping it belong to a teenager, society expects the worst.

Such youthful overindulgence is hardly a modern problem. Little has changed from the days of the Roman Empire, when toga-wearing teens probably swigged wine from the family vineyard while their parents fretted. Today, the image of a teen toga party awash in alcohol still fills adults with dread, especially during the spring months of proms and graduation parties.

Current figures on alcohol consumption by teens are sobering. Nearly one-half of the eighth-graders in America have consumed alcohol. By the time they finish the ninth grade, a quarter of them admit to binge drinking within the past month.

These figures from the Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free also reveal that many pre-teens who should be sipping from Thermoses are gulping from kegs. Thirty percent of the students surveyed in fourth through sixth grades reported significant pressure from peers to drink beer.

Adults who find these figures hard to swallow are trying creative approaches to combat teen drinking.

Since November, the leaders of nine Baltimore-area private schools united in a broad program that includes "contracts" by parents who vow not to serve alcohol to minors in their homes.

An Illinois county awards $100 checks with the drawing of a rat to anyone who "rats" to police about underage liquor sales.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest leads the crusade to remove alcohol advertisements from college and high school sporting events. To crack down on the parties afterward, the Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free wants every keg of beer engraved with an ID number so the buyer can be prosecuted if the keg turns up at a party for minors.

Despite the inventiveness of these programs, the flood of teen opinion flows against them. Eight of 10 teen-agers surveyed believe underage drinking is acceptable so long as their peers act responsibly and don't drive, according to a poll from Drug Strategies.

Some teens even complain that society lectures them endlessly about the dangers of excessive drinking: car accidents, violent behavior, unprotected sex and even death. But kids wear their immortality like a Tommy Hilfiger jacket, wrapping them in the belief that calamities only happen to others.

At the same time, the media portray alcohol as the most glamorous symbol of maturity. While few teens sample martinis, they acknowledge James Bond's coolness when ordering one "shaken, not stirred."

Naive parents also add to the drinking problem. Only 3 percent of parents believe their teen binged on alcohol within the past month, according to a Peter Hart poll. But fully one-third of high school students admit to binge drinking at least once in the previous month, the according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Parents also falsely assume that the recent crackdown on underage sales in liquor stores makes it difficult for teens to obtain alcohol. These adults continually underestimate the inventiveness of youths.

Teens who order off eBay, do their geometry homework and update their Palm Pilots - all at the same time - have no trouble finding a six-pack. Many get alcohol from homes where parents either allow teens to drink or keep a lax inventory of their liquor cabinets. Older teens rely on friends over 21 who can buy alcohol legally. Savvy youths buy alcohol directly from delivery services over the Internet. In many states, such businesses don't need to question the age of buyers before depositing alcohol on their doorsteps.

Some experts are pessimistic that anything can deter such a universal part of teen life. The RAND Drug Policy Research Center has even concluded that trying to halt teen alcohol consumption may be unrealistic. Instead, it proposes campaigns to reduce the most dangerous aspects of alcohol - binge drinking, driving under the influence and mixing drugs with drink.

Teens already endure enough warnings from adults, but peers play a bigger role than parents in shaping a teenager's life. Certainly kids are wrong to view drugs as the greatest danger when drunken driving claims twice as many lives, but they need peers who have suffered from excessive drinking to teach them this reality.

Young drivers charged with intoxication should be forced to educate teens at driver's education classes and alcohol awareness programs. Teenagers may not urge their peers to stop drinking entirely, but a teen's tale of drunken driving or bingeing would emphasize the dangers of excessive consumption more than an adult's lecture.

As teens' cups runneth over with alcohol, society has two choices: Either pour less in their cups or learn better ways to prevent damaging spills.

Nicholas Leonhardt is a junior at Loyola Blakefield High School and lives in Lutherville.

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