Drinking Age: The New Culture of Alcohol
For The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, June 7, 1998; Page 11
When her friend drove up to her house drunk that night, the girl was annoyed but not alarmed. Even after the friend polished off what was left of a pint of Absolut Citron and could not walk without falling down, the girl still thought, as teenagers do, that she could handle the situation.
"It was a burden being her friend, and that night it became painfully obvious," the girl, a Montgomery County high school senior, would later write in a college application essay. "She was far too drunk to accomplish anything on her own. ..." After going to a party, "at one point in the evening I was tempted to take her to the hospital to get her stomach pumped. However, I decided that, since she was conscious, we would take care of her." So she brought the friend back to her house to sleep it off on the couch.
"Later that evening, she vomited everywhere and nearly choked herself to death. Luckily, my friends and I were there, and we were able to prop her up sideways and watch her ... but I have never been as embarrassed and as scared as I was that night," wrote the girl, who doesn't want herself or her friend identified. She learned two things: that she liked helping people, but that some people refuse to be helped.
Her mother learned something as well. She was home upstairs that Friday night, and when she saw the friend asleep on the couch late the next day she assumed it was nothing more than the unshakable sleep legendary to teenagers. She didn't realize that the girl on her couch could have died there not until months later, when she read her daughter's essay.
Unless they get a phone call from an emergency room or the police, most parents never do learn how much their children drink or how close they have come to disaster. It's a point worth remembering at prom time and throughout the summer prime teenage drinking season.
The news in the '90s is not that American teenagers drink in high school. The real news is that they drink in middle school or younger, and that both binge drinking and frequent drinking are increasing. It's also no longer a matter of boys will be boys. The girls are catching up.
Fewer high school seniors last year reported using alcohol to the University of Michigan's annual Monitoring the Future survey than in the early '80s. Still, almost one-third of high school seniors reported bingeing which the survey defines as downing five or more drinks at one time within the previous two weeks. So did one-quarter of 10th graders and more than 15 percent of eighth graders.
But focusing on which numbers are going up or down misses the most important point: The use of alcohol by American teenagers long before they leave home continues to be "very high," in the words of the survey.
"Fewer are drinking but those who drink, drink more. That concerns me it's the institutionalizing of a behavior. The pattern is tougher to break," says George Mason University associate professor of public health David Anderson, an expert on youth drinking.
When college binge drinking repeatedly made headlines, a cluster of alcohol-related deaths led Virginia to establish a task force on the problem. At the time last fall, then-state Attorney General Richard Cullen noted that colleges are inheriting freshmen who are already "professional drinkers."
Buried in annual news reports about the War on Drugs is the fact that alcohol, not cocaine or marijuana, remains the drug of choice for kids ages 12 to 17. At the same time, mounting scientific evidence has found a correlation not just between alcohol and automobile accidents, but between alcohol and violence, alcohol and sexual assault, alcohol and adolescent drownings, alcohol and teenage suicide, alcohol and unprotected sex, and between drinking in the teen years and later alcoholism.
A study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, published in January, found that young people who began drinking before age 15 were twice as likely to abuse alcohol later in life than those who began at 21, and four times as likely to become alcoholics. The study also found that a 13-year-old who has started drinking has a 44 percent chance of becoming an alcoholic whether or not there is a family history of substance abuse.
Parents, of course, are aware that teens drink; what they may not understand is how much. Nancy Rea, coordinator of a publicly funded coalition in Montgomery County called Drawing the Line on Under 21 Alcohol Use, says those who imagine that their children simply sip a beer or two to relax at a party have the wrong picture entirely. Drinking isn't part of the party; it is the party.
"The activity is to get as drunk as possible," says Rea. Kids put tubes or funnels down their throats for chugging. "They put their mouth right under the spigot of a keg in a contest to see who can drink the fastest. All of these behaviors start before college: drinking fast, drinking excessive quantities, drinking until they throw up."
Yet, David Anderson says, "most communities are not aggressively addressing this issue." Neither are parents, many of whom, he says, are "just happy their children are not doing drugs."
But in Montgomery County which in recent years has witnessed the consequences of teen alcohol abuse parents, teachers, school officials, police and students themselves are aggressively addressing underage drinking. In the process, as I found out, they've learned a lot about something parents rarely see how their kids drink.
On Labor Day weekend 1994, a Walt Whitman High School junior who had received her driver's license just three weeks earlier drove her BMW into a tree in Bethesda, splitting the car in half. The driver, Elizabeth Clark, and a passenger, Katherine Zirkle, died; two other passengers were critically injured. Afterward, friends described how the 16-year-old driver and some companions had purchased cases of beer without difficulty and drunk steadily at three houses and a hotel before she climbed behind the wheel a final time.
It was Drawing the Line and Trina Leonard who made sure the community drew a moral from the story. As teenagers turned the crash site into a shrine with flowers and poems, Drawing the Line held a press conference and announced that River Road was not some isolated or romantic tragedy, but the outcome of bad decisions made by kids. The deaths helped mobilize the community into embracing a new approach to teen drinking. "That crash was pivotal," says Leonard.
Leonard had launched Drawing the Line 18 months earlier as an aide for Montgomery County Council member Gail Ewing, who made teenage drinking a point of emphasis in her election campaign. The idea was not to teach kids moderation, but to establish zero tolerance for underage drinking through a combination of enforcement, education, treatment and recreation. The group's ambitious goal, in Leonard's words, was nothing less than "to change the environment in which children grow up."
Before Drawing the Line began, police would bust a party, send the kids home and pour the liquor down the drain. The kids would simply move on somewhere else. There were huge field parties in the summer, drawing two or three hundred teenagers in their cars by word of mouth. Prom seasons had brought at least one alcohol-related death every year for the past five years. Stings of area stores and restaurants showed that the majority were selling beer and wine to underage customers. Even if retailers got caught, the penalties weren't severe. Adults who served alcohol in their houses to other people's children could not be held responsible.
When Leonard talked to parents about zero tolerance she would see their eyes glaze over. Many were still focused on cocaine as the number one substance abuse problem following University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias's death in 1986, she says. "At that point I literally heard parents say, 'Oh, thank God, it's only alcohol.' " They would tell her that drinking was a rite of passage and that nothing could be done to change it.
At Churchill High School, the principal required families who wanted graduation tickets to first attend a meeting and listen to Leonard and a Montgomery County police officer. Leonard remembers only a few adults paid attention when she talked about drunk driving, since they assumed their children would not drink and drive. But they began to take more notice when she mentioned that alcohol has been implicated in up to two-thirds of cases of date rape and sexual assault among young people. "Parents need to view illegal underage drinking as a truck coming at your child," Leonard says.
And they really focused when the police officer told them, "I know a lot of your kids. You may not realize it, but I may have been to your house. I spend more time with your kids on weekends than you do." Then he would pull out about 60 fake IDs and say, "Have you seen these around your house?"
These days Drawing the Line numbers 30 to 40 community groups in its coalition and is involved in nearly 50 projects designed to help curb teen drinking ranging from toughening the laws to sponsoring alcohol-free events like after-prom parties and establishing committees at every high school and middle school to alert parents about students in need of treatment. There's a hot line people can call to report teen drinking parties and a tracking system to collect data. Last November the group published its first data report, including a police log of underage drinking parties. A sample:
12/28/96 12000 block Cook Court. Parents away. 1 passed out. Kennedy, Wheaton, Springbrook High Schools.
1/97 9100 block Bobwhite Circle. 2 hospitalized (overdose). 1 adult furnishing; ½ day of school, Gaithersburg.
5/23/97 12300 block Chagall Dr. North Potomac. Drug paraphernalia. Kids hid in attic. Officer fell through ceiling. Quince Orchard, Watkins Mill High Schools.
7/19/97 19500 block Olney Mill Rd. Coach bought keg. Quince Orchard, Wootton, Damascus, Seneca Valley High Schools.
Last July 26 happened to be an unusually busy day: Party in Bethesda, two kegs, marijuana, Sidwell Friends School. Party in North Potomac, one assault on an officer, Gaithersburg, Quince Orchard, Wootton High Schools. Party in Darnestown, one juvenile arrested for disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, Quince Orchard High School.
This summer's police log may not be any less full. But it won't be for lack of trying. Long before the prime-time drinking season begins, Montgomery's police are out working the one place where teens can't evade them and their message: the classroom.
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