The youth drug of choice

May 04, 2007

One of the country's largest brewers launched a new malt beverage for the twentysomething crowd this year with such child-friendly flavors as hot chocolate and watermelon in 2-ounce bottles. This stirred a modest fuss from the usual quarters (the president of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers says the packaging and snazzy promotional effort seem geared toward teens). But not for long. Sadly, the public's attention span over matters of teen drinking is often teen-like in its brevity.

So it is with prom season. It's customary for schools and police to trot out the mangled cars of drunken drivers this time of year and woo students with alternative alcohol-free parties or get them to sign pledges to call for a ride if they drink. All are probably helpful, at least at reducing incidents of teen drunken driving, but the core problem - underage drinking - deserves a more sustained and concerted approach.

A recent report from the surgeon general's office laid out the facts: There are 11 million underage drinkers in the U.S., nearly 7.2 million of whom are considered binge drinkers (meaning they have drunk more than five drinks on one occasion) and 2 million are heavy drinkers. Altogether, a greater number of people ages 12 to 20 use alcohol than use tobacco or illegal drugs combined.

None of this is shocking. What's troubling is that so many people consider teen drinking inevitable. Parents and society are simply not so powerless - unless they choose to be.

This much is undeniable: About 5,000 teens die each year from injuries suffered as a result of drinking alcohol (car accidents being their leading cause). Drinking plays a significant role in high-risk sexual behavior, including pregnancy and HIV transmission. It's associated with academic failure and drug use, and increases the risk that youngsters will be involved in physical or sexual assault.

Some recent research suggests the impact on a teen's physical and emotional makeup can be devastating. The effects on brain development can be serious and long-lasting. Youngsters who drink are much more likely to become adult alcoholics.

The causes and circumstances of teen drinking are myriad and complex, with physical, cultural, societal and environmental factors. Attacking the problem requires the cooperation of parents and caregivers, schools, policymakers and many others. But the first step is not only to appreciate the seriousness of the problem but to muster the resolve not to passively accept it - or the indifference of others, including those who profit from selling liquor to minors.

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