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

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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. …


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