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Editorial: City has role to play in trying to reduce underage drinking

Sep. 04, 2013 @ 11:39 PM

Some may view underage drinking as simply a harmless rite of passage on the way to adulthood.

But research suggests otherwise.

During 2009, an estimated 18 traffic fatalities and 915 non-fatal traffic injuries were attributable to driving a vehicle after drinking by underage people, according to the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation. That same year an estimated 10 homicides, 4,500 nonfatal violent crimes such as rape, robbery and assault, and 9,100 property crimes such as burglary, larceny and car theft were attributable to underage drinking, according to the institute's research.

Also consider that young people who begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to become dependent on alcohol and two-and-a-half times more likely to become abusers of alcohol than those who begin drinking at age 21, according to the institute.

Numbers like those make it hard to consider drinking by youth a "harmless" practice, and they help explain why representatives of the Cabell County Substance Abuse Prevention Partnership last week urged Huntington Mayor Steve Williams to push for action aimed at reducing underage drinking.

They also shared information a little closer to home. For example, the 2012-13 PRIDE survey of Cabell County students showed that a quarter of 10th-graders had used alcohol in the past 30 days. And information from the Marshall University AlcoholEdu program surveying freshman students last year found that 35 percent of those students drink at bars, although most of them would be under the legal drinking age of 21. A recent compliance check by state authorities and local law enforcement found that about half of the bars they tested within a few blocks of the Marshall campus sold alcohol to a minor.

So, yes, there is a problem locally.

Youths' access to alcohol is not limited to factors that the city government can control. For example, some parents don't object to their children drinking while others are unaware that their teens may be gaining access to alcohol at home or at a friend's house. And for college students, about 40 percent surveyed in the AlcoholEdu program said they drink at off-campus residences.

But the CCSAPP representatives did suggest to Williams steps the city can take to reduce access to alcohol. Among them are restricting the location or number of alcohol outlets, require bars to have their employees participate in responsible beverage server training programs, raising the age at which employees can legally serve alcohol, restricting youths' access to places where a majority of sales are from alcohol, and passing social host laws with repercussions for adults who provide alcohol to minors in their homes.

The mayor seemed receptive to CCSAPP's concerns and promised to discuss the issue with City Council members. We hope he follows through, because there are strategies the city can pursue to reduce the harm that is evident from underage drinking.

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