Efforts aim to curb youth drinking
By Jean Weinberg
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Thirteen years old and in search of a remedy for shyness and a way to bond with friends, Koren Zailckas made alcohol her steady companion.
Drinking heavily on a regular basis, she frequently blacked out. One night, Zailckas had her stomach pumped -- waking up in a hospital bed but with no idea how she got there.
"It was drinking and doing stupid things, or drinking and having scary things happen, but then drinking again to ... mask the memories of it," said Zailckas, now 24, of a cycle that lasted almost a decade.
Statistics suggest Zailckas' story -- chronicled in the New York Times bestseller "Smashed" -- is not uncommon. More American youth drink alcohol than smoke tobacco or marijuana, with drinkers under age 21 accounting for between 12 percent and 20 percent of the U.S. alcohol market. (Even the lower estimate, 12 percent, represents 3.6 billion drinks each year.)
The rate of underage drinking has remained fairly constant and, in some cases, dropped: A 2004 Monitoring the Future study indicated that 51.8 percent of 12th graders, 35.1 percent of 10th graders and 14.5 percent of eighth graders reported being drunk in the past year.
And the costs -- financial (between $53 billion and $58 billion annually, according to reports) and healthwise -- remain high. This fact makes underage drinking a national problem affecting everyone -- not just teens and their parents -- advocates of action say.
A late 1990s study from the U.S. Department of Justice linked youth alcohol use to violent crimes that led to damages costing nearly $36 million, vehicle crashes costing more than $18 million, treatment adding up to $2.5 million (including $1.5 million related to suicide attempts) and other expenses.
For all age groups, heavy drinking has been linked to liver damage, memory loss and brain damage, directly contributing to about 6,000 U.S. deaths annually. Other problems include high incidences of crime, traumatic injury (such as car accidents), suicide, fetal alcohol syndrome and alcohol poisoning, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Underage drinking has gotten the attention of several members of Congress. Efforts are under way to pass the "The Sober Truth on Preventing Underage Drinking Act" (STOP), which would be the most comprehensive federal legislation on the issue. That bill, which would incur $19 million annually in federal expenditures, has stalled on Capitol Hill, where it faces heated competition for government money.
"We must do all we can to dui charges empower parents and communities to protect our youth and to encourage healthy behavior free from binge drinking and other forms of alcohol abuse," said Sen. Jon Corzine, a New Jersey Democrat and bill cosponsor.
'Part of the college experience'
Between 1993 and 2001, 18- to 20-year-olds showed the largest increase in binge-drinking episodes (five or more drinks consumed on at least one occasion in the past 30 days) among American adults.
When she went from high school to college, Zailckas said she felt as if it suddenly became all right to consume alcohol.
"If I was in a quiet Friday morning class my teacher would say, 'It all looks like you started your weekend early,'" she said. "It felt like drinking was part of the college experience."
According to the 2000 National Survey on Drug Abuse, the rate of binge drinking was higher among full-time college students (41 percent) than among their peers aged 18 to 22 (36 percent.)
THE STOP ACT
If made law, the STOP Act would:
Appropriate $2 million annually for a committee to coordinate efforts among federal agencies to prevent underage drinking and to report to Congress
Provide $1 million annually for a media campaign targeting adults
Fund $10 million worth of new programs in states, localities and colleges
Grant $6 million for related research
"It is a lot more acceptable in drinking while driving college versus high school," said Jacqueline Hackett, 19, Student of the Year for Students Against Destructive Decisions. "Nobody really has a problem getting drunk on a Wednesday night [in college]. Everyone knows what goes on, and nobody seems to care."
Zailckas said she comprehended the serious dangers of getting severely intoxicated only after leaving the insulated environment of college.
"It was the experience of being around adults instead of students, of being in a strange city instead of a college campus, that really made the dangers of drinking feel real," she said. "That's when I thought there is something really wrong here, there's something wrong with drinking like this, to drinking to just obliteration."
Legislation to curb underage drinking
The STOP Act, re-introduced February 16 (having originally been brought up in July 2004), would coordinate government efforts to curb alcohol consumption by minors.
The legislation would mandate cooperation between federal agencies, increase prevention activities in states and municipalities, finance a public service media campaign and support related research.
"The STOP Underage Drinking Act will provide the resources necessary to educate young people about the dangers of underage drinking," Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a cosponsor and Republican, said in a statement after the bill's reintroduction in February.
One section would provide $1 million a year to craft a media campaign targeting adults that might serve as a national model.
"We need help in getting the point across," Hackett said. "There is so much persuasive [competing] media encouraging [people] to drink."
In addition, the Drug-Free Communities program would get $5 million, and $5 million more would finance efforts to create coalitions to combat underage drinking and alcohol abuse among college students.
Wendy J. Hamilton, president of MADD, supports the legislation, but says efforts should not end there.
"The money being asked for is really, in the big scheme of things, quite small -- it's only about $19 million," said Hamilton, whose sister and nephew died in a drunk driving accident. We believe much more money has to be put in, [but] this gets the ball rolling."
Another piece of pending federal legislation aims to curb underage drinking by revoking the driver's licenses of adults who provide alcohol to teens.
Similar bills, holding adults responsible for underage drinking, have gained popularity in statehouses across the country. Thirty-five states have passed some type of "social host" legislation in the past decade.
Everyone -- especially young people -- needs to be educated on the subject, especially the dangers of alcohol, said Zailckas, who drank excessively for nine years.
"There is a real lack of complete alcoholic education in school outside of drinking and driving education," she said.
"I really think, at this point in time, it does have to be all of us who deal with that as culture," Zailckas added. "It has to be students and parents and administrations and the government."