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Alarming report details teen-drinking epidemic

More than 5 million high school students say they go on a drinking binge at least once a month according to a new report.

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The study, "Teen Tipplers: America's Underage Drinking Epidemic," was conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA).

The study also reveals there is no longer a gender gap when it comes to teen drinking.  The study found male and female ninth graders are equally likely to drink (40 percent vs. 41 percent) and to binge drink (22 percent vs. 20 percent).

"Underage drinking has reached epidemic proportions in America."

"Underage drinking has reached epidemic proportions in America," says Joseph Califano Jr., CASA president and former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. "Alcohol is the fatal attraction for many teens, a major factor in the three leading causes of teen death — accidents, homicide, and suicide."

The Distilled Spirits Council (DSC) has challenged the report, calling CASA's analysis “flat out wrong.” DSC claims CASA's review of data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is flawed.  DSC argues based on those statistics, each American teenager who illegally drinks alcohol would have to consume 120 drinks per month. This is "a massive error in fact and the wrong conclusion,” says DSC senior vice president Frank Coleman

Parents and Hollywood criticized

CASA claims many parents view underage drinking as a relatively harmless "rite of passage." Additionally, CASA finds:

  • One-third of sixth and ninth graders obtain alcohol from their own homes.
  • Children cite other people's homes as the most common setting for drinking.

CASA also takes aim at Hollywood and the media for glamorizing alcohol use and rarely showing the catastrophic effects of alcohol abuse. According to CASA's findings:

  • Out of 81 G-rated animated films, nearly 50 percent showed characters using alcohol, often without consequences.      
  • Alcohol advertising often uses images that appeal to kids, such as talking animals.  
  • 41 percent of teens say they have tried one or more of the new breed of sweet-tasting, colorful alcoholic beverages.

The costs of underage drinking

According to the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, underage drinking costs Americans more than $58 billion per year.  This doesn't include the millions of dollars paid out annually by health, home, and auto insurers for claims or liability awards associated with underage drinking.

It's not just the insurance companies that might have to pay if your teen gets into trouble while drinking. Let's say your teenager decides to have a party, while you’re away from home. One of the teens at the party leaves drunk, drives, and crashes into another car. How much liability do you bear?

The National Association of Independent Insurers (NAII) points out you can be sued for damages and injury resulting from your child's actions. This might be covered under your home insurance policy, but only up the limits of your liability coverage. If damages exceed your policy amount, you are personally liable for the remainder.

Checklist for parents

  • Set rules and expectations and enforce consequences.
  • Know your children's friends and where they go.
  • Send clear messages about alcohol use.
  • Discuss negative consequences of drinking.
  • Don't show your child that it takes a drink to relax.
  • Don't accept underage drinking as a rite of passage.

Source: The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University

"A case like this will drag in as many parties as possible to get the biggest payout," says Don Griffin of the NAII. "Times like this are when an umbrella policy for personal liability is extremely important. If you only have half a million dollars in coverage under your standard homeowner policy and you reach a settlement for $2 million, you are responsible for coming up with the remainder. If you don't, the court can take your house and any other personal property."

Umbrella policies are not terribly expensive compared to the amount of liability coverage they provide. A $1 million umbrella policy averages about $200 per year.

It isn't just a teen who drives away from the party you have to worry about, either. If a fight breaks out at your home and someone is injured, your home insurance policy will most likely have to pay for medical bills for the injured party, up to your policy limits. If those are exhausted, you can be held personally liable for the rest.

Whoever supplies the alcohol is the responsible party.

In addition, whoever supplies the alcohol is the responsible party, which means parents can be liable for more than money. In some states, parents can face criminal charges if they provide alcohol to underage drinkers.

"If parents are going to have a party and are going to take responsibility for allowing underage kids to drink in their home, then they have to keep the kids there overnight," says Griffin. "You want to be sure your family is protected, but you also have to be attentive as parents," says Griffin. "You need to know what your kids are up to."

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