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It is mid-summer and prime time for vacations and other recreational activities. It's also a prime time when teenagers may drink alcohol.
This is not only dangerous, but potentially lethal. Attention is growing on teen's drinking alcohol in large quantities, or binge drinking. It occurs at teen gatherings in places such as a friend's house, in the woods or fields, at concerts or on the beach.
Often the teens are unsupervised, but occasionally a misguided adult is present and aware of the drinking. Underage drinking can cause health problems and cause teens to take risks; the results can be alarming and sometimes catastrophic. Adults who are aware of underage drinking on their premises can face legal charges such as fines and imprisonment.
Underage drinking, and binge drinking, defined as "five or more drinks in a sitting," occurs at significant rates in Connecticut. The 2011 Connecticut School Health Survey, which questioned high school students across the state, found that in the month before the survey, 41.5 percent of high school students reported having at least one drink of alcohol, 22.3 percent reported binge drinking, 6.9 percent said they drove after drinking alcohol and 25.2 percent rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol.
In Connecticut, 15.6 percent of high school students drank alcohol (other than a few sips) for the first time before age 13.
Binge drinking just seems like fun to many teens. To adults it may seem like no big deal. The reality is that alcohol consumption can adversely affect developing adolescents' brains and have long-term health consequences.
Studies also show the brain doesn't fully develop until we are about 25 years old. This means underage drinkers often cannot fully understand the risky situations they invite. They don't fully understand the negative consequences that can result from underage drinking, such as death from alcohol poisoning or through drunk driving.
Studies that show that youth who drink alcohol are more likely to experience problems in school and become involved in unwanted, unplanned and unprotected sexual activity. They can expose their family to a host of legal problems. While we know that alcohol consumption by teens greatly increases their risk of addiction later in life, teenagers often do not think that far into the future.
Underage drinking should not be considered a rite of passage. Parents are always the first line of defense when it comes to their child's safety and this includes preventing teen alcohol use. Parents should model safe alcohol use and talk to their children about alcohol and its associated dangers in order to prevent alcohol use. Parents can set clear expectations and provide family rules regarding teen alcohol use.
Careful monitoring of children's whereabouts is also important. At times this may mean an uncomfortable conversation with another parent to ensure supervision at a party. It may mean walking a teen into a concert rather than dropping them off at the parking lot or letting them catch a ride with another teen.
You may be told that you are the mean parent. However, it's worth it if it keeps your child safe. Teenage alcohol related accidents and binge drinking consequences are entirely preventable.
My department will continue to work with state agencies, communities and parents to prevent underage drinking. We are available with resources and referrals for the prevention, treatment, and recovery from addictions. Together we can stop this public heath epidemic.
Pat Rehmer is commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. For help and ideas on how to prevent and deal with teen drinking, visit the state's website www.SETtheRulesCT.org.