Few people need to be reminded that underage drinking remains a major problem in contemporary society. The most widely-held mental picture of those offenders is probably that of teens caught driving under the influence of alcohol. That certainly has a basis in fact given the number of highly publicized arrests and incidences that arise after a youngster drinks and gets behind the wheel and ends up doing harm to themselves and others. There is, however, another side of underage drinking that deserves equal attention.
That's the number of underage kids who drink alcohol prior to the age when they are old enough to get a driver's license. The problem is increasingly evident, and it begins long before teens are old enough to drive legally. The numbers are chilling.
According to one authoritative survey, about 10 percent of 12 year-olds report that they have used alcohol once. The number doubles for 13 year-olds. At 15, about 50 percent of youngsters say they have had at least one drink. It rises to about 72 percent for 12th graders, who are usually 18.
Given those numbers, it's hardly surprising that about 70 percent of 19 and 20-year olds admit to episodes of heavy drinking, or that, as the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports, there are about 11 million underage drinkers in the United States.
Teens drink a lot
Not all youngsters illegally consume alcohol. Those that do, however, apparently drink a lot. Teens don't drink as often as adults, but they drink more when they do. Indeed, youngsters are prone to binge drinking, a dangerous practice that often leads to serious health, social and legal consequences, and sometimes death. Studies indicate the pervasive nature of the problem. Twenty-nine percent of 12th graders, 22 percent of 10th graders and 11 percent of eight graders report bouts of binge drinking.
The consequences of that behavior are sadly predictable. The short-term issues are readily apparent: under-age kids in a stupor at alcohol-fueled parties in homes where parents are absent (or in some instances, present), and a rising number of kids with documented alcohol abuse problems. The long-term issues are major as well.
Youngsters who drink at an early age tend to continue to drink as they get older. Some experts say that about a fifth of collegians, almost all too young to purchase alcohol legally, are heavy drinkers. A third drink regularly.
The result is dangerous and can be embarrassing. Accounts of a recent incident involving underage ingestion of alcohol at the University of Tennessee are a case in point. A fraternity-house incident made at least one student seriously ill, and made the state's flagship institution of higher learning the butt of jokes across the country and around the world.
No university, zip code or socioeconomic group escapes the plague. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, thankfully, has been spared UT-like notoriety, but that does not mean that underage drinking is not a problem. A UTC spokesman said that the 66 underage drinking citations and 377 underage drinking disciplinary referrals were issued in 2011 despite intensive education efforts. He added that the university knows that many other incidents went reported.
The same underreporting is surely true in cases involving law enforcement agencies. A spokesman for the Chattanooga Police Department said there had been 52 arrests and 4 citations for underage drinking so far this year. A Hamilton County Sheriff's Department spokesman reported 45 incidents involving underage drinking between January and June. Well-publicized education and suppression programs at many levels probably help keep the numbers down, but the number of under-age drinkers here is almost certainly considerably higher than reported.
The costs of such drinking are hard to ascertain. One agency says the total runs into the billions. That's not surprising.
Underage drinking across the United States is linked directly to thousands of deaths, at least two million injuries, and over 50,000 cases of fetal alcohol syndrome annually. Add to that the cost of treating at least 100,000 youngsters for alcoholism. You don't need an accountant to tally the costs. It doesn't have to be that way.
There is accumulating evidence that school, church, family and community-based anti-drink and anti-drunk driving programs for the young work.
There has been a downward tick in the number of alcohol-related related traffic fatalities in the under-20 age group, but the number is still unacceptably high. Achieving additional reductions in underage drinking won't be easy.
Alcohol is widely available almost everywhere in the United States. Such broad acceptance makes it difficult to control kids' access to booze. Many underage drinkers report obtaining it from adult-age friends, family members and acquaintances.
Even so, the challenge must be met. Continued, even-handed enforcement of current laws are useful. Health and education campaigns aimed at youth of all ages, licensed drivers or not, are sensible steps toward building useful programs to convince youngsters that they are not immune to the dangers of drinking. So are similar efforts to reduce DUIs by licensed drivers of all ages.
The broader, long-term national goal should be to promote major change in a society that often overlooks, or even ignores, the danger inherent in underage drinking and the often tragic consequences that flow from it.