Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Guest Column: Youth access to alcohol hurts all Montanans

by Denyse TraederNW Montana Community Change Project
| November 4, 2009 11:00 PM

In Montana, underage drinking is often thought of as a “rite of passage” that every teen goes through. It is seen as a harmless pastime.

The exact opposite is true; this “harmless pastime” contributes to more deaths among our youth than any other preventable cause. Recent studies in brain development show that the human brain does not completely develop until the mid-20s and the damage alcohol inflicts on the adolescent brain is often irreversible and long-lasting.

Even moderate alcohol use by teens impairs learning and memory to a far greater extent than adults. Adolescents need to drink only half as much as adults to suffer the same negative effects.

Alcohol is the gateway drug for teens and young adults. Combined with tobacco, alcohol is the first used drug and the drug of choice for youth, both in the nation and in Montana.

Not only are our youth drinking in excess, they are starting at earlier ages. Alcohol is the leading cause of death among teenagers. It is responsible for four times as many preventable teen deaths each year than every other illicit drug combined, and has been blamed for nearly half of all teen automobile accidents and up to 65 percent of youth suicides. Alcohol use and abuse by teens are correlated to an estimated two-thirds of all sexual assaults and date rapes. It is the major factor in unprotected sex among sexually active youth.

In 2001, alcohol sales to youth in the United States led to an estimated 3,170 deaths and almost 2.6 million injuries and other costly events. The economic cost of those 3,170 deaths by underage drinkers is staggering when put into dollars and cents.

The total monetary cost equaling $61.9 billion dollars – $5.4 billion in medical spending, $7.8 billion in property losses, $7.1 billion in work losses and $41.6 billion lost in quality of life. That equals $4,680 per underage drinker in 2001. Alcohol consumed by underage drinkers in 2001 accounted for at least 16.2 percent of all U.S. alcohol sales.

According to the Prevention Needs Assessment conducted in Montana schools in 2008, 36.9 percent of high school students in Montana experienced a binge drinking episode—consuming five or more drinks within a two-hour period, within the last 30 days. This was a higher percentage than any other state in the country. The data for individual counties and communities are even more disturbing.

A majority (53.4 percent) of current alcohol users ages 12 to 20 drank at someone else’s home the last time they used alcohol, and another 30.3 percent drank in their own home. Whether in their own home or somewhere else, youth rarely steal alcohol from stores, or bars.

Instead it is supplied through an adult source by ease of access, or direct service, purchase and/or sales. At local, state and national levels, home parties have repeatedly been identified as the primary source by which youth obtain alcohol.

Due to the death, health and economic toll inflicted on populations because of underage alcohol use, communities large and small have begun to realize the need for social host liability policies and/or teen party ordinances.

Social host liability laws are becoming commonplace across the nation and seek to impose civil penalties for violations. Penalties often consist of monetary damages to be paid by the social host for injuries caused by their intoxicated guests. New Jersey was the first state to adopt a social host liability law.  Since that time, 20 states have enacted social host laws and many more states have individual county, city, and town laws pertaining to social hosting. 

According to current research, social host laws are among the most effective forms of public policy in reducing binge drinking and drinking and driving in both youth and adults. Around the country, lawmakers and courts are increasingly recognizing that underage drinking is a serious threat to the health and safety of their communities and are taking steps to reduce it.

The Kansas State Senate recently passed a bill making it a crime (punishable by six months in jail) for adults to allow underage drinking in their homes. Pennsylvania sentenced a woman to four and a half years in prison after she allowed a party that led to the drunken driving deaths of three teenagers.

In many states, including Montana, the assignment of civil penalties is limited, or precluded by the state Civil Code, which requires an injured party to prove that his or her injury was caused by the host’s illegal service of alcohol rather than the drinker’s own consumption of alcohol. Therefore, a slightly different approach to social hosting law may be needed for Montana. 

Civil liability issues aside, all Montanans will remain burdened by the cost of problem drinkers. Statewide, there are at least 32,000 problem drinkers in Montana, and 10 percent of all Montanans ages 18-25 are alcohol dependent. That’s the highest rate in the nation for this age group, and evidence that problem drinking begins as underage drinking.

According to recent research from the Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER) at the University of Montana, every problem drinker in Montana costs the state and society $16,000 a year. “These costs are borne by businesses, individuals and governments, as well as dollars lost to the state economy due to alcohol abuse,” reports Dr. Steve Seninger, senior research professor at BBER.

In Northwest Montana, the county-by-county, annual costs associated with problem drinkers are staggering:

Mineral County: $7.7 million

Sanders County: $7.7 million

Lincoln County: $9.2 million

Lake County: $35.6 million

The problems associated with underage drinking in homes are difficult for law enforcement agencies to resolve without greater authority. Instead of sanctioning civil penalties after a third party has been injured or killed, social host policies could hold adults accountable by imposing fines and allowing police departments to recover costs incurred in breaking up private parties where underage drinking occurs. An ideal social host policy would allow police to issue misdemeanor citations with fines attached to any adult who permits underage drinking in his or her home. Further, it could permit law enforcement to recover service costs from the adult offender the very first time police are called to the residence. Repeat offenders would face escalating fines. Social host policies give law enforcement a tool to control private parties where underage drinking occurs, and serve as a significant deterrent to hosting the parties for underage drinkers in the first place.

Social host policies help to generate county revenue through law enforcement and make the providing of alcohol and/or allowing of underage drinking a crime. Through such policies we can help dispel Montana’s cultural acceptance of underage drinking as harmless and a youth’s rite of passage.

(Denyse Traeder is a program officer for the Northwest Montana Community Change Project. This is the first in a series on this subject over the coming months.)