MOUNT WASHINGTON - Ask the national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and she’ll tell you underage drinking is not just a youth problem, it’s an adult problem.
Because as MADD President Jan Withers explained adults who host teen drinking parties in their homes or purchase alcohol for those under the age of 21 make it more difficult for communities to prevent underage drinking.
In addition to supporting grassroots efforts to combat drunk driving and providing support for individuals affected by those who choose to drive under the influence, Withers said combatting underage drinking is a significant part of MADD’s mission.
“We’re not just worried about underage drinking and driving, but underage drinking,” Withers said. “The reality is the teenagers of today could become the drunk drivers of tomorrow.”
As national trends indicate more and more teens and young adults are consuming alcohol on a regular basis, Withers said it’s time adults are held accountable when they turn a blind eye to underage drinking or when they knowingly providing alcohol to anyone under the age of 21.
While MADD does not actively engage in policy matters, Withers commended local efforts to implement social host liability legislation in Bullitt County, adding that she believes placing criminal liability on adults who host parties where alcohol is served to those under 21 gives communities an effective tool to hold adults more accountable.
“When social host laws are in place I think adults are more aware of personal liability and what it can cost them,” she said. “It’s a deterrent.”
Though social host liability laws vary from state to state and community to community, Withers said social host states tend to have fewer reports of underage drinking parties and lower rates of underage drinking in general than states with no social host law.
Currently more than 150 cities or counties and 24 states have adopted social host legislation, according to MADD’s Kentucky office, while 26 states, including Kentucky, have no laws that allow law enforcement to cite the individuals who host underage drinking parties on their property.
Under Kentucky Revised Statutes, the possession of alcohol is prohibited for those under the age of 21 with no exceptions. However, underage consumption is not explicitly prohibited, according to the NIAAA’s Alcohol Policy Information System.
Furnishing alcohol to minors is prohibited in Kentucky unless it’s supplied by a parent or guardian under certain circumstances.
What’s more, those under the age of 21 may operate non-commercial motor vehicles after consuming alcohol under KRS as long as their blood alcohol concentration is below .02 (the legal BAC for an adult to operate a motor vehicle in Kentucky is .08).
About 20 local governments in Kentucky have social host ordinances, however KRS 413.241 explicitly limits the liability that can be placed on those who provide alcohol to those under the age of 21, or anyone else for that matter.
Instead Kentucky law places liability on the act of consumption.
“(1) The General Assembly finds and declares that the consumption of intoxicating beverages, rather than the serving, furnishing, or sale of such beverages, is the proximate cause of any injury, including death and property damage, inflicted by an intoxicated person upon himself or another person,” the law states.
Withers said MADD is not about telling parents how to raise their kids, but rather discouraging the potentially dangerous choices people tend to make while under the influence.
“We’re not prohibitionists,” Withers said. “For adults, the whole point is to decide before you ever take your first drink how you’re going to get home with a sober, designated driver. When it comes to people under 21 we know that underage drinking poses serious public health risks.”
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 5,000 people under the age of 21 die each year from alcohol-related car crashes, homicides, suicides, alcohol poisoning, and other injuries such as falls, burns, and drowning in the U.S.
The NIAAA also reports that more than 190,000 people under age 21 visited emergency rooms for alcohol-related injuries in 2008 alone.
Studies show drinking also leads youth to make poor decisions, which can result in risky behavior like drinking and driving, sexual activity or violence, according to the NIAAA.
There’s also the increased risk for physical and sexual assault and problems with brain development.
Withers said it’s a fact that brain development continues well into a person’s twenties. Alcohol, she said, can affect this development and contribute to a range of problems.
Though there are many theories as to why teens and young adults choose to drink, Withers said parents play the most significant role in whether or not their children choose to drink before they turn 21.
“We’ve all heard the argument that kids want to drink because they shouldn’t, but research has shown that’s not the case,” she said.
Withers said research has proven that parents have more influence on thier kids’ decisions to drink than most think.
Seventy-four percent of teens and young adults polled say their parents are their biggest influence in their decision to consume alcohol, according to Withers.
Statistics also show that most American parents are in denial when it comes to their teens’ drinking habits.
Withers said that while one in five teens say they binge drink, one in every 100 parents believe their children binge drink.
“We can no longer bury our heads in the sand,” she said. “This is a real problem and it’s killing our young people.”
Behind parental influence, Withers said youth themselves play a vital role in underage drinking, which is why organizations like MADD strive to educate teens on the dangers of underage drinking.
The third prong, Withers said, is community.
“It really does take a community,” she said. “This isn’t just a teen problem, it’s an adult problem. Teens get their alcohol from adults.”
And while many parents allow their children to drink at home under their supervision because they think it encourages them to drink responsibly, Withers said tolerating underage drinking appears to have had the opposite affect.
Withers said studies have shown that adolescents and young adults under the age of 21 who are permitted to consume alcohol under adult supervision tend to drink more frequently and in larger quantities than those whose parents prohibit drinking with no exceptions.
Young people typically drink less often than adults, but when they do they typically drink more than adults.
Studies show that, on average, young people have about five drinks on a single occasion, which can be considered binge drinking.
And binge drinking, according to the NIAAA, can pose serious health and safety risks, including car crashes and injuries. In the long term, binge drinking has been shown to damage the liver and other organs.
“The fact is that when adults think it’s ok to give kids alcohol those kids are more likely to become binge drinkers,” Withers said.
Withers said that while her children are now adults, she could remember hearing of parents who thought it was okay to allow their kids to drink on their property because they would take their keys away to keep them from driving.
“Taking away the keys does not take away the danger,” she said. “To think we’re protecting them and teaching them responsibility, the opposite is true.”
Seven Counties Services Regional Prevention Director Patty Gregory pointed out that of the top three substances abused by young people, alcohol tops the list behind tobacco and marijuana.
Gregory, who advocated for a social host ordinance in Bullitt County only a few years ago, said underage drinking is a widespread public health concern and Bullitt County is no exception
The Kentucky Incentive to Prevention survey conducted in October, which was completed by all sixth, eighth, tenth and twelfth graders who attend Bullitt County Public Schools, shows that a significant percentage of local high school sophomores and seniors had their first drinks fairly young.
Seven percent of sophomores and four percent of seniors said they first had more than a sip or two of alcohol when they were 10 or younger.
The majority of sophomores, 17 percent, said they had their first drink when they were 14, three percent said they were 11, seven percent said they were 12, nine percent said they were 13 and 16 percent of tenth graders said they were 15.
The majority of seniors, 22 percent, said they had their first drink when they were 16, 13 percent said they were 15, 11 percent said they were 14 and 11 percent said they were 17 or older when they first tried alcohol.
The survey also shows that 21 percent of seniors and 12 percent of sophomores said they have consumed alcohol on 40 or more occasions in their lifetime.
In total, 76 percent of seniors and 64 percent of sophomores said they had consumed alcohol on one or more occasions in their lifetime.
What’s more, 31 percent of sophomores and 42 percent of seniors said they had consumed alcohol on one more occasions during the 30 days prior to completing the survey.