Editoral: Easy alcohol access factors in underage drinking
A recent town hall meeting in Huntington put the spotlight on underage drinking, and with good reason.
A survey taken of Cabell County students last spring showed that many are no stranger to alcohol, with 24 percent of eighth-graders saying they had partaken within the past year. That figure more than doubled, to 51 percent, among 11th-graders. According to the students’ responses, the average age of first use of alcohol in Cabell County is 13 years of age.
Those troubling statistics mean a significant percentage of our young people are putting themselves at risk for the many potential dangers that alcohol use poses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that alcohol use contributes to more than 4,700 deaths a year nationwide among people under 21. In 2010, 189,000 emergency room visits by people under 21 involved injuries or conditions linked to alcohol use.
The potential harm doesn’t stop there. Alcohol can damage the developing brains of youth, yielding lifelong consequences, the CDC notes, and children who drink before the age of 14 are five times more likely to become addicted to drugs and alcohol than persons who begin drinking after age 20.
This is not a promising picture, yet teens seem to continue having ready access to alcohol. That was the particular problem focused on at the town hall meeting conducted by the Cabell County Substance Abuse Prevention Partnership, or CCSAPP.
Teens report that they gain access to alcohol through family, friends, at retail locations and bars. CCSAPP, in its presentation, noted several aspects of state law that contribute to these sources of supply.
Among them is the fact that youth 18 or older are allowed into bars. Although underage patrons are not to be served alcohol, teens report that they can routinely work around that once they are inside. Participants in the town-hall meeting also noted that state law allows people as young as 18 to work in bars and serve alcohol, which means an underage drinker might find a sympathetic ally to slip him or her drinks.
Among other shortcomings, according to CCSAPP and participants at the town hall gathering:
n West Virginia has no social hosting law, which would hold an adult liable for alcohol served to youths on his or her property. An Alcohol Policy Information System survey of underage drinking laws shows, incidentally, that West Virginia law doesn’t prohibit family members from giving alcohol to minors.
n The lack of any mandatory requirement or voluntary program to train servers of alcohol, training that would reinforce the concept of not serving alcohol to teens and equip servers with information to help detect underage people.
n Local police agencies do not have authority to enforce underage drinking laws inside bars, unless they have a warrant or an immediate danger is reported or suspected. The West Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Administration has that power, but its resources are limited.
Taken together, the picture is one that suggests West Virginia has a laissez-faire attitude regarding under-age drinking and could do more to curb teens’ access to alcohol. Policymakers should take a look at the laws now on the books and consider changes that would better address this supply issue and reduce the risks to young people in the state.