Price of underage drinking costly in many ways
Posted: Thursday, June 24, 2010 9:07 pm
By EMILY WILLIAMS
That’s how much Tennesseans spent in 2007 on medical care, work loss and pain and suffering caused by underage drinking.
But the real cost was the 60 traffic fatalities and 1,400 traffic injuries caused by underage drunk drivers; the 33,700 violent rapes and assaults and 49,500 property crimes committed by underage drinking perpetrators; the 49 homicides and 10 suicides committed by underage drinkers; the 3,700 teen pregnancies and 17,000 risky sexual acts that resulted from underage drinking; and the countless young people who will deal with alcohol addiction for the rest of their lives because they began drinking too young.
Underage alcohol use is more likely to kill young people than all other illegal drugs combined. The problem is growing as young people begin drinking at a younger age and at more dangerous levels.
Recent research by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that 17 percent of eighth graders, 33 percent of 10th graders and 45 percent of 12th graders drank in the past month. In addition, the surveys found that the average age for the first use of alcohol was about 14 years old, compared to about 17 1/2 in 1965.
The amount which young people drink is also increasing.
On average, underage drinkers consume more drinks per occasion than adult drinkers — five or more drinks, which is defined as binge drinking. In Tennessee alone, about 226,000 individual between the ages of 12 and 21 binge drink every month. This has serious health risks, most notably alcohol poisoning which can result in a coma or death, the surveys found.
But even just moderate drinking can have adverse effects on adolescents’ health.
The SAMHSA report revealed that alcohol can have serious effects on the developing brain, such as damaged nerve tissue. The researchers believe this negatively affects attention span in teens and their ability to comprehend and interpret visual information. These teens continue to show long-lasting impairment as they age.
In addition, both males and females who drink alcohol during puberty, a period of rapid growth and development, upset the critical hormonal balance necessary for normal development of organs, muscles and bones. Studies also show that consuming alcohol during puberty adversely affects the maturation of the reproductive system.
Besides the physical effects are the mental health problems linked to underage drinking — dependence and addiction.
In Tennessee, an estimated 115,000 individuals between the ages of 12 and 21 are addicted to alcohol or have an alcohol abuse problem.
SAMHSA found that 18- to 20-year-olds have the highest level of alcohol dependence over any other age group, and people who reported starting to drink before the age of 15 were four times more likely to also report meeting the criteria for alcohol dependence at some point in their lives.
If the direct consequences of underage drinking are not enough, the indirect consequences are just as grave.
For one, underage drinking greatly enhances the risk of physical or sexual assault. It also increases risky sexual activity resulting in unwanted pregnancies, STDs and HIV.
One local teen explained that when she found out she was pregnant, she could not believe it. “My life was completely altered because of one stupid night of drinking at an older guy’s party. I am so angry at myself,” she said.
An Even Bigger Problem
Forty-five percent of all people who die in drinking and driving incidents involve an underage driver.
Union City Police Chief Joe Garner explained that this is often the case in the serious traffic accidents in this area. “Death is a great risk involved with underage drinking, but youth feel invincible most of the time,” he said.
The seriousness of the problem is one that was conveyed to teens from Reelfoot Youth Camp recently in a more effective way than facts or statistics.
The teens took part in the simulated impaired driving experience, which gave them the opportunity to drive a go-cart which had been altered to have a delayed response time, similar to the delay in response of drunk drivers. Nick Glenn of the Martin Police explained to the group, “You can’t put a body back together like you can a cone.”
In addition, the Samburg police and fire departments showed the teens the process of recovering victims from severe accidents with an actual wrecked car.
The teens also heard a very important message — “It can happen to you.”
M.A.D.D. speakers Mary Ann and Stan Flowers of Brownsville told the heart-wrenching story of how the violent crime of drunk driving has affected them.
The Flowers’ daughter and grandson were killed by a drunk driver who was drag racing on Highway 19 in Haywood County.
Just four months after this tragedy, the Flowers’ received a call that their younger son had been in an accident. They learned that their son, who was underage at the time, had been out drinking and got in the car with his drunk friend. The driver missed a curve and the car flipped at least five time. Flowers spent 15 days in the Regional Medical Center in Memphis but, thankfully, survived.
Since then all three members of the Flowers family work to educate others on the dangers of drinking and driving.
They speak to first-time DUI offenders who are court-ordered to go to victim impact panels, as well as to young people.
A Call to Action
In 2007, acting Surgeon General Kenneth P. Moritsugu, M.D., M.P.H issued the Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking.
According to his website, “Alcohol remains the most heavily abused substance by America’s youth. We can no longer ignore what alcohol is doing to our children. This Call to Action is exactly that — a call to every American to join with the Surgeon General in a national effort to address underage drinking early, continuously, and in context of human development. Underage drinking is everybody’s problem — and its solution is everyone’s responsibility.”
The Call to Action calls upon every member of society to recognize the severity of the underage drinking problem in the United States and work to prevent and reduce alcohol use by children and adolescents to protect them from the negative effects of underage drinking.
Local law enforcement are doing just that. They have recently increased emphasis on DUIs and highway safety, as well as alcohol education through their DARE and high school drinking and driving programs.
But reducing underage drinking will require community-based efforts from parents, those who sell alcohol and the news media. However, as Chief Garner explained, “In the end it is the youth that have to make the right decisions.”
Editor’s Note: Emily Williams, the daughter of Roger and Juli Williams, is a senior at Rhodes College in Memphis. She is interning at The Messenger this summer.
Published in The Messenger 6.24.10