Just in case worried parents needed something else to worry about . . .

Two-thirds of all American children have used beer, wine or hard liquor in the past year, and a third of them are current drinkers. More than 91 percent of high school seniors have used alcohol at some time in their lives (only 67 percent have smoked by then), and more than 65 percent of seniors have consumed alcohol within the past month.

Your children aren't teen-agers yet? Then try this: Two of every five American youths have drunk wine coolers before their 13th birthdays.

The findings are from a survey conducted last January by The Weekly Reader in association with the National Council on Alcoholism. The report was released last Friday in the October-December issue of Metropolitan Life's Statistical Bulletin.

How serious a problem is this youthful alcohol abuse? Deadly serious, says Metropolitan.

"The National Council on Alcoholism reminds us that alcohol is the major cause of all fatal and nonfatal teen-age traffic accidents and is implicated in thousands of drownings, suicides, violent injuries, homicides and burns among adolescents.

"Alcohol abusing teenagers are more likely to be engaged in other 'problem behaviors,' to make lower grades in school, to be more involved in heavy marijuana use and to be less involved in religious activities than nonalcohol abusing youth. In addition, early use of alcohol is considered a predictor of later alcohol abuse and a 'gateway behavior' for illicit drug use and other deviant behaviors."

One reason for the startling figures, health officials suspect, is the recent heavy marketing of wine coolers.

Many wine coolers are portrayed like fruit juice or soft drinks," the NCA's Lora Friedman said. "They are in the supermarkets right next to the soft-drink section. For kids, it becomes a fuzzy distinction."

Bum rap, says the industry, noting that it is illegal to sell wine coolers to minors. "They are obviously getting it from their parents" Joe Gegg, a spokesman for the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America, told United Press International. "Nobody would be naive enough to think fourth and sixth graders are walking into grocery stores and buying wine coolers."

Whatever the source, and whatever the problems with the survey, it seems clear that the pressure to use alcohol is increasing among the very young. The Weekly Reader did not directly ask its 500,000 respondents whether they had personally used alcohol but rather whether their friends had. "These were children, and they were handing {their responses} in to a teacher," a magazine official explained.

Still, 42 percent of sixth graders said their friends have tried wine coolers. Two-thirds of the seniors said all or most of their friends get drunk at least once a week.

Perhaps more disturbing than the prevalence of use among teen-agers is the youngsters' attitude toward alcohol. Only four of 10 seniors thought heavy weekend drinkers were at "great risk" of harming themselves; two-thirds thought there was "great risk" only from having four or five drinks every day.

Moreover, the respondents reported heavy peer pressure to drink wine coolers as early as sixth grade.

The survey did not specify the culprits, but surely they include both the alcohol industry and lackadaisical parents who refuse to believe that a few sips of cooler can lead to serious alcohol abuse problems. For some parents, at least, wine coolers are a relatively harmless introduction to adult sophistication -- like a training bra.

Well, maybe this latest survey, along with the campaigns of organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, will help to wake us up. I know it goes against the modern trend, but parents need to learn to give unambiguous "don't do it" signals to their children.

And industry officials would do well to rethink their advertising schemes, particularly the use of cartoon characters in their wine cooler ads. Like the rustic pair in the wine cooler commercials, we'd be prepared to thank them for their suppor