Feature: Deadliest time for teen drinking

By PHIL MAGERS  |  April 16, 2002 at 12:04 PM
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DALLAS, April 16 (UPI) -- For high school seniors, this can be the happiest and most memorable time of the year with proms and graduations, but it also can be one of the most deadly because of the drinking many teenagers see as part of the rite of passage.

"This is a deadly time of year for our young people," said Millie Webb, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "Alcohol kills six and a half times more of our young people than all the other illicit drugs combined."

A study of prom-graduation traffic fatalities during nine spring weekends in 2000 found from 58 percent to 64 percent were alcohol-related, according to the National Traffic Safety Administration. More than 100 fatalities were reported each weekend.

"This should be a fun time, the end of another school year," said Webb. "It should be a time of great achievement and a time to remember, not a time they wish they could forget because they chose to use alcohol."

MADD offers public awareness campaigns to make students and parents aware of the dangers of underage drinking. In most states, the legal drinking age is 21. MADD works with 20 other organizations and local groups to promote all-night, chemical-free parties.

In Oregon, high schools have sponsored such parties for graduating seniors for more than 40 years. In Maine, another program called "Project Graduation" was started after 18 people died during two graduation seasons due to alcohol-related crashes.

Although the impact of underage drinking is usually measured in traffic fatality figures, another expert in the field notes there are other deadly consequences.

"People think this is some kind of rite of passage, but this is dangerous," said Bill Patterson, a former deputy director of the North Carolina Alcohol Law Enforcement Division. "They think alcohol is related to drinking and driving, but it's not just drinking and driving. It's also assaults, suicides, and accidents like falling out a window."

Patterson, a past president of the National Liquor Law Enforcement Association, is now a senior program manager at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, a non-profit public interest company based in Calverton, Md.

Although many schools and local organizations try to control underage drinking related to proms and graduation celebrations, Texas is one of the few states that takes an aggressive approach against underage drinking across the state.

"Texas leads the nation in alcoholic-related traffic fatalities. That is something we are not proud of, and the number of underage drinking fatalities are up here also." said Greg Hamilton, chief of enforcement for the Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission.

Many of the state's field agents are out getting dates and locations of upcoming prom parties and graduations, addressing classes when invited, and checking on hotels and motels, which have become the preferred site for parties in Texas.

Hamilton said his agents won't hesitate to check the parties and walk the hallways and parking lots to stamp out underage drinking. The agents are usually dressed in coat and tie, but they do pull undercover stings to catch illicit liquor sales. They also warn cab and limousine drivers about the law.

"A couple of years ago we had reports that kids were calling cabbies and on their way to the prom they were getting the cab driver to purchase the beer, and those individuals gave them a fee for going in and purchasing the alcoholic beverage," he said.

The aggressive Texas program has attracted national attention. Hamilton has received calls from alcoholic beverage control agencies in about a half dozen states. Gov. Rick Perry has signed a proclamation making April "Youth Alcohol Awareness Month."

In the proclamation, Perry states, "no community is immune from this problem and, despite the passage of laws intended to end underage drinking and driving, it is clearly evident that government alone cannot combat the problems."

The Texas program works hand and hand with the Texas Hotel and Motel Association, the Texas Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, the alcoholic beverage industry, other law enforcement agencies, and MADD.

Underage drinking has been down in recent years in Texas because of stepped-up enforcement and coordination, Hamilton said, but he admits there may be another reason.

"We have come to realize that this issue of underage drinking is bigger than TABC, local law enforcement, bigger than the school district, bigger than the church group, bigger than the parent but if we work together we can have a bigger impact," he said.

"I don't want to admit, but I have to, the kids are also just getting sneakier."

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