The recent deaths of three Washington teens – a 14-year-old Bellingham girl, a 17-year-old boy in Shoreline and an 18-year-old Washington State University student – remind us just how dangerous alcohol is for minors. As parents and co-chairs of Washington State Coalition to Reduce Underage Drinking, our hearts go out to the families and friends who are suffering these terrible losses. Before we lose another child, grandchild, student, and friend, let us ask ourselves what we as adults are doing to encourage or discourage underage drinking.
Parents are the number one influence on their children’s decisions about alcohol. Although their friends and the media also play a role, studies consistently show that parents are the key, and kids pay attention to what they say and do. Opportunities and pressure to drink (especially during holidays and other times for celebrating) are constant in their young lives. The most important steps parents can take are to lock up their alcohol, never provide it to minors, continue guiding healthy choices with your teens and college students, and give them the facts: alcohol kills more kids than tobacco and illegal drugs combined – 5,000 youth under 21 die each year from underage-drinking related injuries; one in five 10th graders will binge drink (five or more drinks in a row) in the next two weeks; alcohol causes damage to the developing teen brain, putting them at greater risk for learning problems and addiction.
We are concerned about youth access to alcohol. Recent news reports strongly suggest that stolen liquor is making its way into the hands of teens. Have you wondered what you can do to help create a healthier place for kids to grow up? Each of us has the power to reduce youth exposure to alcohol and its advertising by: showing our children that we can socialize and have fun without alcohol, setting clear rules against underage drinking and never providing alcohol to those under 21; asking store owners to remove alcohol ads in windows and keep beer away from candy, toys, pop, other kid-friendly items and the store entrance; work with fair boards and community festival coordinators to minimize or eliminate youth exposure to alcohol advertising and promotion; making it harder for youth to get alcohol and letting adults know it is not okay to give it to teens. Preventing underage drinking tragedies is up to all of us. Find out how to join others in your community to reduce underage drinking, and get tips for talking with youth, at http://www.StartTalkingNow.org.
Michael Langer and Sharon Foster co-chair Washington State Coalition to Reduce Underage Drinking. Langer administers statewide drug prevention programs at the state Division of Behavioral Health and Recovery. Foster is the chair of Washington State Liquor Control Board.