Thursday, April 27, 2006

Kids Are Starting To Drink In Elementary Schools

Nearly half of Colorado's high school students drank alcohol at least once last month. More than 27 percent had their first drink before age 13.

But many began even younger.

Nationally, nearly 10 percent of fourth-graders have started drinking, according to a recent study.

And for some, alcohol use triples over the next few years. Just over 16 percent of fifth-graders and more than 29 percent of sixth-graders have taken more than a sip, reports University of Pittsburgh professor John Donovan in "Really Underage Drinkers: Alcohol Use Among Elementary Students."

In fact, during the past several decades, another study shows, the average age at which adolescents have their first drink dropped alarmingly, from 17.5 years old in 1965 to 14 in 2003.

"They say they're starting at 8 and 9 years old," says Cheryl Reid, who runs weekly, court-assigned alcohol- education classes for teen offenders in Pueblo.

"They say they started hard because they wanted to be part of the group of older kids."

So severe is the problem that the head of the American Medical Association refers to it as "an epidemic" that costs American taxpayers $53 billion each year.

Although the number of underage drinkers has declined slightly in recent years, the federal government still considers it unacceptably high. Last month, officials launched a national awareness campaign to reduce underage drinking, including town hall meetings in all 50 states.

Although often considered a "rite of passage," underage drinking can lead to risky sexual behavior, impaired brain development, mental and physical problems, traffic fatalities and academic failure.

"Kids in Douglas County are coming to school intoxicated," says Lt. Alan Stanton, public information officer for the Doug las County Sheriff's Office.

For many teens, alcohol has emerged as their most enjoyable form of recreation.

"There are few things in life better than drinking," says one 16-year-old from Boulder County. "It loosens things up and makes me happy."

He and his 16-year-old friend, who want to remain anonymous, started drinking in eighth grade. Each was given alcohol by an older sibling.

"Basically, everything you do ... it makes it more fun," he says. "I can walk up and talk to anyone," he says, "especially the girls."

Alcohol is the most commonly used drug among adolescents nationwide.

In his report, the University of Pittsburgh's Donovan cites a 2002 study that showed 6.3 percent of fourth- through sixth-grade students had drunk beer, 7.4 percent had had wine coolers, and 3.1 percent had imbibed hard liquor in the past year.

About 70 percent of those who drank each beverage had drunk it just one to six times in the past year. But 19 percent drank it one to two times a month, and 11 percent drank it one to seven times per week.

A local study, also done in 2002, showed that nearly 9 percent of Colorado sixth-graders had engaged in binge drinking - five or more drinks on one outing - in the preceding two weeks. The numbers surged to nearly 29 percent of eighth-graders, 46 percent of 10th-graders and more than half of high school seniors in the same study.

A more recent study of Colorado high school students found that almost half had one or more alcoholic drinks the previous month. But 29 percent were already binge drinkers.

And 17 percent of students surveyed in the 11th and 12th grades had driven vehicles while under the influence of alcohol.

A new social norm

Each year at Denver Health Medical Center, Dr. Kerry Broderick treats between 48 and 72 adolescents for alcohol-related problems - some with worrisome levels of alcohol intoxication.

"I see kids who are 12 years old to 16 years old, which is pretty common," she says. "Recently, one 14-year-old had a blood-alcohol level of 2.60, which is really high for a kid. He was intoxicated, but not dead."

Last month in Elbert County, eight middle-school students were caught drinking on campus. They had raided their parents' liquor cabinets and poured the alcohol into soda bottles to hide the contents.

And in Pueblo, at South High, "kids are blatant about it," says Lisa Budisavljevic, a police officer assigned to the school. "They'll go out for lunch wherever they can, find a place to drink or light up, then come back drunk."

Teens say they use alcohol for many reasons: from boredom and stress to sex appeal and the cachet of cool.

Cash also plays a role, according to a 2003 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. More than half the country's 12- to 17-year-olds, it reported, are at greater risk of substance abuse because of high stress, frequent boredom and too much spending money - or some combination of these.

"(Drinking) is a stress release that helps people forget about what happened that week, so they can really let go and not have anything to worry about," says Ashley Smith, 17, a member of the student council senate at Fairview High School in Boulder.

Pop culture, awash in alcoholic beverages, is another factor.

According to the STOP Underage Drinking bill introduced in the House of Representatives in 2005, studies show that 71 percent of prime-time television shows depict alcohol use, and 77 percent feature some reference to alcohol.

"The social norm is that it is no longer considered unacceptable for a teenager to drink, or have a problem with it," says Dr. Chris Thurstone, a researcher at Denver Health Medical Center who specializes in teen addiction.

This culture of acceptance influences parental attitudes.

A recent study by the American Medical Association reported that one-third of teens said it's easy to get drinks from their parents, who knowingly provide alcohol.

"We do see a trend ... that children are arrested and parents don't really see a problem with what their kids have done," said Douglas County's Lt. Stanton.

Other parents feel powerless, given what they see as an endless wave of social conditioning.

A mother of three teenagers in Salida, for example, allowed her children to attend high-school graduation parties where the kids would be drinking

because they were supervised by parents who took away car keys.

"The knowledge that parents would be there to supervise relaxed some of my fears," says this mother, who requested anonymity to protect her children. "I gave my children directions not to drink, but the choice is theirs at that point."

The parents of Adam Neyer made a similar decision in June 2001, four days before their son's graduation from Englewood High School.

Adam and his friends wanted to start celebrating early. His father, Steve Neyer, wasn't surprised they wanted to go to Rampart Range in the Pike National Forest.

The thickly forested area is frequented by underage drinkers seeking cover for keggers.

Steve and his wife, Debbie, knew that many of the popular kids believed alcohol was the price of social acceptance.

"Did we like it?" says Steve. "Absolutely not."

"The reason we seem like the more 'liberal parents' is that he was 18, and going to college in three months," says Debbie Neyer.

"We knew there was going to be beer at the party, so what could we do, short of going up there to bust the party, and embarrassing him in front of everyone who knew him?"

The parents knew their son would be with his two best friends, good suburban kids who'd grown up together. All were on Englewood High's varsity football team: Neyer was fullback, Adam Devereaux was quarterback and Chris Workman was a running back.

As Adam bounded toward the front door that night, his father warned him: "Under no circumstances are you to drink and drive."

"Don't worry, Dad," his son replied.

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, Steve and Debbie Neyer were awakened by incessant pounding at the front door.

Peering through the sidelight onto the porch, Steve saw a police officer, knew the news wasn't good, and hollered for his wife to come downstairs.

Together they struggled to comprehend: A brutal wreck ... Adam dead ... alcohol may be involved.

Over time, the Neyers slowly pieced together what had happened.

En route to the party, Workman and Devereaux had stopped at a liquor store, where the clerk sold Workman a keg of beer without asking for identification. For nearly five hours, between 12 and 15 teens partied in the pine-scented solitude. A freshman girl named Nicole Scott missed her ride home, so the boys came to her rescue.

Workman slid behind the wheel of Devereaux's 1996 Nissan. Adam Neyer rode shotgun, while Devereaux and Nicole rode in the back.

By the time they hit South Santa Fe Drive, Workman was driving about 100 mph. With a blood-alcohol level of more than 0.10 - legally drunk - he lost control of the car. It hit a chain link fence, and then catapulted into a telephone pole, hitting so hard the half-empty 16-gallon keg hurtled out the trunk.

Adam Neyer, who died at the scene, had two broken legs, a crushed skull, and massive internal injuries. Nicole Scott died a day later; unlike the boys, she had not been drinking.

Workman eventually pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide and vehicular assault, and received a 14-year prison sentence.

The Neyers have since spoken many times on Mothers Against Drunk Drivers victim-impact panels. They've also worked for the past three years for passage of a bill that would require store identification tags on beer kegs so police can trace a keg to the store where it's been sold.

Parents, however, are deeply divided over the issue of underage drinking.

Some call it a curse. But others argue it's a rite of passage. They drank as teens and survived, so they expect the same for their children.

The teenage body, however, reacts differently to alcohol than one that is fully developed. Adolescents build tolerance quickly, so they can drink more in one sitting than most adults.

It's the reason alcohol poisoning, which can lead to death, is so prevalent in younger drinkers.

One Boulder County teen, for instance, said that when he began drinking, he would throw up during a night of heavy partying. But now, he says, he's learned his limit: 14 shots, or when he starts seeing double.

When his girlfriend was 14, she drank herself into a state of paralysis.

"She couldn't walk or talk," he says. "She couldn't even throw up anymore, though she was trying to. I carried her to the car. The ER doc said two more drinks and she would have been dead."

Source – DenverPost.Com