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Fall 2003 Vol. 3 No. 3

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Young people drinking ŠIndex Stock Imagery

Underage Drinking

A National Wake-Up
Call Needed

More young people drink alcohol than smoke or use other drugs -- a problem that costs the nation an estimated $53 billion annually in losses stemming from traffic fatalities, violent crime, and other behaviors that threaten the well-being and long-term development of America's youth.

Most adults voice concern about underage drinking, but the trouble is, too many of them are -- as teens might say -- "clueless." Surveys show that kids often get alcohol from grown-ups. Parents underestimate the extent of the problem and their own children's drinking habits in particular.

Alcohol is a deeply engrained part of American culture, although people have vastly different beliefs about its consumption. But alcohol use by young people is clearly dangerous. A nationwide strategy is needed to prevent and reduce underage drinking, with parents and other adults as central players in the effort, says a new report from the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine.

The report offers a comprehensive approach that requires a shared commitment to tackle the issue -- not only from adults, but also from many public and private institutions, alcohol manufacturers, retail businesses, and the entertainment industry. Parents, for example, should more closely monitor their children's behavior. And the alcohol and entertainment industries need to do more to shield young people from unsuitable messages about drinking.

The strategy's proposals include calls for states and localities to use a variety of measures to boost compliance with laws that prohibit selling or providing alcohol to people under the legal drinking age of 21. For instance, officials ought to increase the frequency of compliance checks, in which authorities monitor whether businesses are obeying minimum-drinking-age laws, and levy fines when necessary. States that allow Internet sales and home delivery of alcohol should adopt regulations that require customers to sign statements verifying their identity and age at the time of delivery. Local police, together with community leaders, must work on ways to detect and shut down underage drinking parties.

The federal government has an important role to play, too. It needs to better organize and beef up research in this area. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also should routinely monitor advertising practices in the alcohol industry, the report says. Likewise, the department ought to regularly review a representative sample of movies, TV programs, music recordings, and videos offered to audiences where at least 15 percent of the viewers or listeners are under 21, and report its findings to Congress and the public.

In addition, the federal government needs to fund and actively support the creation of a national media campaign to encourage parents and other adults to take steps in their own homes and neighborhoods to discourage underage drinking. State and community leaders must develop efforts to prevent and reduce underage drinking that are tailored to the specific circumstances in their localities, the report says.

To pay for the proposed activities and to help reduce underage consumption, Congress and state legislatures should raise excise tax rates on alcohol -- particularly on beer, which studies show is the alcoholic beverage that most young people prefer. Alcohol is much cheaper today, after adjusting for inflation, than it was 30 to 40 years ago. Higher tax rates should be tied to the Consumer Price Index to keep pace with inflation. Increasing the cost of alcohol has well-documented deterrent effects on underage drinkers, the report points out.

All intervention and education programs, and the proposed strategy itself, should be rigorously evaluated and fine-tuned over time, said the committee that wrote the report.   -- Vanee Vines

Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility. Committee on Developing a Strategy to Reduce and Prevent Underage Drinking, Board on Children, Youth, and Families, National Research Council and Institute of Medicine (2003, approx. 295 pp.; ISBN 0-309-08935-2, available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $42.95 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Richard J. Bonnie, John S. Battle Professor of Law and director of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry, and Public Policy, University of Virginia, Charlottesville. The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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Copyright 2003 by the National Academy of Sciences