Alcohol and Kids: It's Time for Candor

A series of recent government studies shows that alcohol abuse is by far the biggest drug problem facing America's youth, and existing laws do little to address it

ONE pressure young people face makes my job, and our hopes for the future, inherently more difficult: the pressure to drink alcohol.

Alcohol is truly the mainstream drug-abuse issue plaguing most communities and families in America today.

We must realize how confusing the mixed messages are that we send to our children about alcohol. We've made progress in the war against illicit drugs because our youth have gotten consistent messages from their families, their schools, their churches, their communities, their nation - and their media.

We're losing the war against underage use of alcohol, however, because our youth receive some very mixed messages. Advertisements and other media images tell them, "Drink me and you will be cool, drink me and you will be glamorous, drink me and you will have fun!" Or even worse, "Drink me and there will be no consequences."

Our health message is clear - "use of alcohol by young people can lead to serious health consequences - not to mention absenteeism, vandalism, date rape, random violence, and even death." But how can that be expected to compete with the Swedish bikini team or the Bud Man?

In June 1991, I released "Youth and Alcohol: Drinking Habits, Access, Attitudes and Knowledge, and Do They Know What They Are Drinking?"

This collection of studies showed that:

* At least 8 million American teenagers use alcohol every week, and almost half a million go on a weekly binge (or 5 drinks in a row) - confirming earlier surveys by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

* Junior and senior high school students drink 35 percent of all wine coolers sold in the United States (31 million gallons) and consume 1.1 billion cans of beer (102 million gallons) each year.

* Many teenagers who drink are using alcohol to handle stress and boredom. And many of them drink alone, breaking the old stereotype of party drinking.

* Labeling is a big problem. Two out of three teenagers cannot distinguish alcoholic from nonalcoholic beverages because they appear similar on store shelves.

* Teenagers lack essential knowledge about alcohol. Very few are getting clear and reliable information about alcohol and its effects. Some 9 million, to be exact, learn the facts from their peers; close to 2 million do not even know a law exists pertaining to illegal underage drinking.

In September 1991, we released a second set of reports, this one on enforcement of underage drinking laws. It was called, "Laws and Enforcement: Is the 21 year-old Drinking Age a Myth?"

These reports showed that:

* The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 started out with five exemptions that in some states have become loopholes.

* The federally mandated 21-year-old minimum drinking law is largely a myth; it is riddled with loopholes. Two-thirds of teens who drink, almost 7 million kids, simply walk into a store and buy booze.

Police point out that parents do not like their children arrested for "doing what everyone else does." One official described enforcement of alcohol laws as "a no-win" situation. And another commented, "Local police have another priority - [illicit] drugs. They ignore alcohol."

And by and large, there are only nominal penalties against vendors and minors when they violate these laws. While vendors may have fines or their licenses suspended, license revocations are rare.

The penalties against the youth who violate the laws are often not deterrents. Even when strict penalties exist, courts are lenient and do not apply them.

We are seeing over and over again the potential for the kind of tragedy that occurred last year on Maryland's eastern shore where Brian Ball, 15 years old, drank 26 shots of vodka at an "all you can drink" party and died two days later - parties where underage drinking gets out of hand, and no adult is held liable. Only 10 states have adopted so-called "social host" laws that hold the host adult or parent liable for the consequences of underage drinking on their property.

Finally, last Nov. 4, we released a final report titled, "Youth and Alcohol: Controlling Alcohol Advertising That Appeals to Youth."

* Much alcohol advertising goes beyond describing the specific qualities of the beverage. It creates a glamorous, pleasurable image that may mislead youth about alcohol and the possible consequences of its use.

* A 1991 poll done by the Wirthlin Group said 73 percent of respondents agreed that alcohol advertising is a major contributor to underage drinking.

Additionally, the majority of Americans think that alcohol industry ads "target the young."

Most recently, as honorary chair of Alcohol Awareness Month, I released a fourth report which deals with usually unreported consequences of teen drinking.

Drinking and driving certainly puts many lives at risk, but an alcohol-impaired person doesn't need to get behind the wheel of a car to do harm to himself and to others. Depression, suicides, random violence, and criminal acts - such as date rape, battery, and homicide - all have strong links to alcohol use. So do the unintentional alcohol-related injuries that result from falls, drownings, shootings, residential fires, and the like.

Crime is a major consequence of alcohol consumption. Approximately one-third of our young people who commit serious crimes have consumed alcohol just prior to these illegal actions.

According to the Department of Justice, alcohol consumption is associated with almost 27 percent of all murders, almost 33 percent of all property offenses, and more than 37 percent of robberies committed by young people. In fact, nearly 40 percent of the young people in adult correctional facilities reported drinking before committing a crime.

Alcohol has also shown itself to be a factor in being a victim of crime. Intoxicated minors were found to provoke assailants, to act vulnerably, and to fail to take normal, common-sense precautions.

Among college student crime victims, for example, 50 percent admitted using drugs and/or alcohol.

Rape and sexual assault are also closely associated with alcohol misuse by our youth. Among college age students, 55 percent of perpetrators were under the influence of alcohol, and so were 53 percent of the victims. Administrators at one US university found that 100 percent of sexual assault cases during a specific year were alcohol-related.

Who can honestly tell me that alcohol is not adversely affecting the future of these young people?

I want to share with you another finding I find particularly shocking and revolting: Among high school females, 18 percent - nearly 1 in 5 - said it was okay to force sex if the girl was drunk, and among high school males, almost 40 percent - 2 out of every 5 - said the same thing.

We found other startling links, such as:

* 70 percent of attempted suicides involved the frequent use of drugs and/or alcohol.

* Water activities - of special interest and concern in summer - often result in alcohol use and danger. Forty to 50 percent of young males who drown had used alcohol before drowning. Forty to 50 percent of all diving injury victims had consumed alcoholic beverages.

Clearly, something must be done about this pervasive problem confronting our youth. Two things are clear: First, we all have a role to play in solving this problem; second, by working together we can solve it.

I have urged the alcohol industry to come to the table, to work with us, to become part of the solution. I have also urged schools to make alcohol education a central part of the health curriculum from the earliest grades on. This curriculum must include teaching resistance and risk-avoidance techniques.

And, finally, I have urged families - parents and children - to talk to each other about alcohol, about distinguishing truth from fiction.

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