Teen-age drinking: a test for grown-ups

Americans generally fail to take the problem of teen-age drinking seriously -- until some personal or community tragedy arouses parents, teachers, and -- most important -- teen-agers themselves to the dangers of alcohol abuse. The education pullout section in today's Monitor has been written primarily to help youthful readers understand and defen themselves against the social pressures that lead to teen-age alcoholism. But the central message that comes through the case histories reported on and the recommendations and advice of high-school counselors and others who deal with the tragic results of teen-age drinking on a daily basis is that society as a whole must share the blame for the growing number of young lives ruined by what some experts call the Number One drug problem in the US today. Everyone, it is clear, must assume greater responsibility for combatting the increasing incidence of alcohol abuse among the young.

Advertisements, TV shows, and movies that glamorize liquor consumption are doing youth no favor. Neither are parents whose own behavior bolsters the myth that "social drinking" is the adult way to gain peer acceptance and cope with modern stresses. "Drinking is learned by watching parents and other adults," cautioned one study. As for "social drinking," a contributor to the education pullout states aptly, "there is nothing social about the 9 million adult alcoholics or the 1.3 million teen-agers who are knwon to have serious drinking problems."

A police chief in a suburban community near Boston cites the shocking national statistic that 8,000 young people were killed, 40,000 injured in liquor-related accidents last year and adds, "The greatest responsibility lies with parents. Character building starts at home -- not with police or schools. . ." But the policeman who winks at illegal teen-age drinking and looks the other way is also part of the problem, as are college authorities who encourage drinking by providing kegs of beer at university-sponsored events.

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Young people whose lives have been touched by liquor-related tragedies cry out for parents to set stricter standards and rules. "Know where your children are at night," they plead. And start by listening. They urge, "Listen to your kids when they talk to you, Make them feel that you care."

The same kind of public outcry and organized opposition that has helped to alert the public to the dangers of cigarette smoking could help bring changes in public attitudes about drinking. Despite the public apathy that persists, there are some encouraging signs of wider recognition of the need for preventive action. About a dozen states in the past two years have hiked the legal drinking age to 19, 20, and 21. Eight states have started issuing pamphlets at state-owned liquor stores warning of the health and addiction dangers of drinking. A number of private citizen groups are calling for federal health warnings, similar to those required on cigarettes, for liquor bottles and advertisements. To federal agenices are studying the possibility of requiring such labels, and legislation that would accomplish this is before Congress.

In the final analysis, the primary responsibility must remain with parents, the family, and the church to instill in youngsters the moral and spiritual values which provide the inner strength needed to resist the societal pressures to drink. Youngsters given the proper guidance and understanding at home inevitably recognize that they don't "need" liquor to fulfill their desires and aspirations.

And for that matter, neither do adults.

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