There is bad news and good news about teenage drinking.
The bad news, research suggests, is that children who start drinking below the age of 15 are more likely to become alcoholics than those who start at the legal age of 21.
The further bad news is that new scientific evidence suggests underage drinking can cause permanent damage to a teen's rapidly developing brain.
The good news is that concerned federal and state agencies are sounding the alarm about this serious problem.
The further good news is that parental disapproval turns out to be the key reason underage children choose not to drink alcohol.
Even in Utah, a state with a large LDS population that eschews alcohol, 59 percent of Utah parents are surprised to learn that some heavy binge drinking starts as early as the sixth grade.
Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has launched a media campaign called ParentsEmpowered.org, designed to educate parents about the dangers of underage drinking and the proven skills to prevent it. "You have more power over the choices your children make than you may realize," says Huntsman.
He believes parents who drink should tell their children that some people should not drink alcoholic beverages at all. This includes children and adolescents, pregnant women, people who plan to drive or take part in activities that require attention or skill. These parents should make it clear they do not want their children to drink alcohol until they are 21 and then only in moderation.
Parents who do not drink should explain to their children the reasons for not drinking, whether they are religious, health-related or due to family history. They should set clear rules about no underage drinking, know where their children are and with whom, ensure their children's social environments are alcohol-free, and have daily, positive communication and interaction with their children. They should explain that drinking alcohol is not a "rite of passage" but a dangerous drug for a teenage brain.
The ParentsEmpowered.org campaign draws for its conclusions on research by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. The research finds that alcohol affects a teen brain differently than it affects a mature adult brain. It posits that the brain goes through rapid development and "wiring" changes during the ages of 12 through 21, and teen alcohol use can damage this brain wiring.
According to Larry Lunt, chairman of the Utah state agency monitoring alcohol sales, a new law cracking down on sales to young people has increased compliance from 66 percent to 88 percent. Says Lunt: "We used to say 'reducing underage drinking in Utah,' but the new motto is 'eliminating underage drinking in Utah."'
Meanwhile, California is considering action against a product that critic Dr. Jim Kooler describes as "an insidious strategy to get teens comfortable with alcohol." The products, under labels like Smirnoff Ice, Mike's Hard Lemonade, Bacardi Silver and Zima, are flavored alcoholic beverages that the New York Times says look and taste like soda, "but offer the kick of a cocktail." Kooler heads a state-sponsored group that promotes healthy lifestyles for teenagers. He wants California to adopt stricter rules for drinks that contain distilled spirits but are sold and taxed as beer. The Times says that if the products were taxed as hard liquor, the tax would jump from 20 cents a gallon to $3.30 a gallon. Maine has reclassified these drinks, known as alcopops and flavored malt beverages, making them more expensive and difficult to buy. Arkansas, Illinois and Nebraska are considering similar proposals. In California, such reclassification is opposed by small-business owners and industry groups.
Gary Galanis, a spokesman for the big alcohol maker Diageo, told the Times that flavored malt beverages are roughly as potent as beer. The drinks, he argued, come from brewing, not distilling, and the alcohol stems from added flavoring, not hard liquor. But attorney Jim Mosher, who studies underage drinking, says "if beer has alcohol in it, it's a distilled spirit."
Galanis says the real problem with underage drinking is not alcopops, but alcohol. The numbers, he says, show that underage drinkers get the alcohol from siblings over 21 or parents. From oddly different viewpoints, this spokesman for the alcohol industry agrees with organizations like ParentsEmpowered.org that what parents and families do may hold the key to combating underage drinking.
John Hughes teaches journalism at Brigham Young University. He is a former editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News and a former editor of the Christian Science Monitor, which syndicates this column.