Essex District Attorney
"Not every kid is going to get in the car, drive drunk, and die. But there will be that kid who kid who has to have his stomach pumped. Don't so much remind them that drinking does not [just] equal death but it does equal a lot of things. You have to evaluate every part of the 'what can happen' and make sure they know every consequence."
This is the advice to adults from a seventeen-year-old girl who has made a decision not to drink alcohol as a minor. She is one of 10 young people from Essex County who are featured in my new underage drinking prevention program, Underage Drinking: Not Everyone is Doing It. From her perspective, she sees the damage that drinking does up close and urges adults to speak honestly to the children in their lives about all the consequences of drinking - not just drinking and driving. She is also an example that debunks the myth that all kids drink. The truth is - as the name of my new underage drinking prevention program suggests - fewer high school students in Massachusetts are drinking.
It is true that, for too many young people, alcohol does result in death. Alcohol kills young people at a significantly higher rate than all other illegal drugs combined. These deaths are caused not just by motor vehicle crashes, but also homicides, suicides, alcohol poisoning and other accidents such as drowning or falling. This statistic should provide warning to those adults who, with all good intentions, collect car keys from minors in an effort to "keep them safe". The fact is there is no such thing as safe underage drinking. Here in Essex County, we have had numerous incidents where minors have suffered alcohol poisoning, been sexually assaulted and have died as a result of attending so-called "supervised" drinking parties.
But as the young people who were interviewed by my staff said - death is only a small part of the wreckage caused by underage drinking. Addiction, brain damage, drug use, crime victimization and poor school performance is the rest of the story.
New research indicates that the human brain does not complete its development until after the age of 20. Exposure to alcohol and drugs before age 20 can cause permanent harm to the brain. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a study that shows that teens who drink gets more C's and D's and teens who don't drink get more A's and B's.
Another study reveals much higher rates of addiction among people who started drinking in their teens as compared to those who waited until they were 21. Also, contrary to popular belief, addiction does not take years to manifest itself. Young people, still in high school, are going into treatment centers and attending "recovery" high schools.
We also know that young people who drink are more likely to use illegal drugs, have sexual contact against their will, and be victims of rape, assault and robbery than teens who do not drink.
Perhaps the most heartening statistic is the one that indicates that parents have a very powerful influence on their children when it comes to behavior related to alcohol and drug use. It may seem that our children listen to us less and care less about what we think as they grow older. However, several different survey results tell a much different story. Concern about "disappointing parents" is one of the major reasons why teens don't drink or use drugs. Also, teens who learn about the risks of alcohol and drugs from their parents are 50 percent less likely to use alcohol and other drugs.
In the continuing effort to reduce underage drinking, my office has developed three presentations each geared to different audience: middle school, high school and adults. Each presentation discusses all of the consequences of underage drinking - legal, physical and social. We offer these programs to all schools, community groups and others at no cost.
I believe that, working together, we can continue the progress made in Massachusetts to increase the number of young people who agree with one of the young people interviewed as part of our underage drinking program. She said, "To me it's not worth it. At 16, your life isn't over, you could wait until you're 21 if you're that eager to drink. But it's just not worth it. I have my whole life to live and I want to live it right, and using drugs or alcohol are not going to help me reach my goals."
For more information contact the Juvenile Justice Unit at (978) 745-6610
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