When teens drink, parents may pay

In his role as director of a youth commission in suburban Boston, Jon Mattleman meets parents whose teenagers have been caught drinking. Although the parents know underage drinking is illegal, their reactions sometimes surprise him.

"They'll be defensive about it, they'll rationalize it," says Mr. Mattleman, who works in Needham, Mass. "They'll say, 'I did the same thing when I was a kid.' " A few even provide the liquor themselves, reasoning that if teens drink at home, parents can supervise - and lock up their car keys.

Now, tolerant parents like these are becoming the latest targets in a national battle against underage drinking. After years of focusing on bars and liquor stores that serve underage drinkers, community leaders and law-enforcement officials are broadening their approach, holding parents accountable if they allow liquor to be served to minors in their home.

"We can't blame teenagers for the problem when it's adults who are providing the alcohol to them," says Ferris Morrison, project manager for the North Carolina Initiative to Reduce Underage Drinking. "A lot of the problem is that parents just don't see alcohol as a problem."

New laws aim at adults' role

Efforts to change that attitude are wide-ranging. Some states are passing tougher "social host" and "adult responsibility" laws. Others are holding community meetings to educate parents and teenagers. In addition, 10 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have formed coalitions to reduce underage drinking, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

This month, Rep. John Mica (R) of Florida and Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D) of California will also introduce a bill in Congress to establish a national media campaign to prevent underage drinking. An existing antidrug media campaign does not warn against alcohol.

Although the use of illegal drugs is down among young people, more than 10 million teenagers drink, according to a study released last week by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Nearly 7 million engaged in binge drinking last year. The average age for a first drink is 13, even though drinking under the age of 21 is illegal.

Many parents strongly support efforts to prevent underage drinking, of course. But others view it simply as a rite of passage.

Some parents raised in the 1960s and '70s "take a little more cavalier approach to underage drinking," says David LeVasseur, co-chairman of the Connecticut Coalition to Stop Underage Drinking. "We all know parents who say, 'Well, at least it's just alcohol and not marijuana or cocaine.' "

In fact, parents who tolerate teen drinking are not necessarily devoid of moral intention. Some see teen alcohol use as almost inevitable, and argue that providing a supervised environment for the activity is the most responsible approach.

But letting youths use "just" alcohol carries its own perils. Beyond drunk driving, experts point out that youthful drinking can contribute to unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, vandalism, and violence. Alcohol abuse is linked to as many as two-thirds of all sexual assaults and date rapes among teenagers and college students.

Students obtain alcohol in many ways: getting older friends and siblings to buy it for them, raiding parents' liquor cabinets, bribing customers outside package stores. Adding to the temptation are relatively low prices. A single serving of alcohol can cost less than bottled water or bottled juice.

Parents have key role

But it is parental attitudes that can have the most profound effect on young people. "Many kids say, 'We drink because adults let us drink,' " explains Bonnie Holmes, executive director of the Maryland Underage Drinking Prevention Coalition. "Kids have told us over and over, 'We laugh at these parents [who allow teenagers to drink in their homes] all the way to the next party. If we can drink in your house, why can't we drink at the park or at the football game under the bleachers?' "

As a result, many states are cracking down with tougher laws:

*In Minnesota, those convicted under a recent Zero Adult Providers (ZAP) law can be jailed, fined, or sued for damages. Homeowner's insurance policies do not cover this liability, because it involves an illegal act. Those found guilty must pay out of pocket.

*In North Carolina, anyone convicted of providing alcohol to underage persons will be fined a minimum of $250 and assigned 25 hours of community service.

*In Maryland, adult providers can be charged up to $1,000 for a first offense.

The upshot: No longer can parents claim to be ignorant of what is going on in their home, saying, "Oh, I was up in the bedroom or down in the basement." Family advocates point out the importance of changing attitudes, helping parents understand that youthful drinking is not the norm. "We need to say to adults, 'Most adults don't provide alcohol to teenagers, and most teenagers don't drink,' " Ms. Morrison says.

Community campaigns

Already, in Connecticut, towns are organizing public meetings to educate parents. "We're trying to increase awareness that parents take on an incredible liability potential when they condone and provide alcohol for an in-home party," says Mr. LeVasseur.

And in Needham, Mass., the Needham Youth Commission has created a 12-hour program to help parents of teens. "Letting parents know that they put themselves at risk will have an impact," Mattleman says.

Teenagers, too, are playing a role. Later this month, Some 435 high school students will propose solutions to Washington lawmakers at a national youth summit on preventing underage drinking, hosted by Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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