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Turning a Blind Eye to Underage Drinking

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Teenage drinking and mild recreational drug use are a part of the social fabric in Summit, New Jersey, where I live. Like many wealthy east coast suburbs populated with competitive and high-achieving families, my town teems with parents who run around enhancing their children's college options and stressed-out kids who let down from their week of A.P. bio homework, soccer practice and SAT tutoring with alcohol or other mood-enhancing drugs.

Last year, I tried to find out why so many adults ignore underage drinking, and why we avoid confronting the grown-up who serves alcohol to our teenage kids, or who fails to shut down the beer pong in the basement. Both appeared in the Huffington Post. A year later, with proms and graduations again upon us, what's changed?

First, the bad news. According to Summit's Juvenile Detective Matt Buntin, who spoke last month to an audience of parents at Kent Place School, an all-girls prep school in town, teenagers have begun using vaporizers -- homeopathic contraptions the size of a blender, more commonly used to diffuse lavender or echinacea -- to speed pot's active ingredient into their bodies and to hide the smell. "We pull them out of houses all the time," Buntin said. Scrappy kids who don't have the $150 it costs to buy a vaporizer on eBay or Amazon have been known to convert plastic Gatorade bottles into bongs.

Just as Twitter and Facebook have enabled young revolutionaries in Egypt and Iran to gather together for instant protests, social media has helped modern American kids mobilize promptly against their common enemy, snooping grown-ups. Ubiquitous cell phones allow kids to get the word out about which house lacks nosy adults, allowing kids to descend quickly on the vacant home and drink in peace. In the two hours it takes for Mom and Dad to go out for Italian or see The Avengers, friends from all around can come over, get wasted and flee. Why don't teenagers at least linger over a drink, rather than gulp down shots? "Kids don't have the time," Buntin said.

In addition, evidence mounts that team sports are becoming a gateway drug to underage drinking and alcohol abuse, starting with 14-year-olds. "Eighth grade is a very vulnerable year," Buntin said. During the summer before 9th grade, kids eager to make a freshman team are invited to captains' practices, and then parties, where older kids imbibe or have fun getting the younger kids drunk, he explained. The average age for a kid to start drinking is now 14, as compared to 17 ½ in 1965, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Nationally, the connection between heavy drinking and sports is well documented, even if not widely known. A 2006 study led by Dr. Robert Turrisi from the Prevention Research Center at Penn State summarizes the evidence about college athletes: "recent research shows that athletes drink more frequently and consume more per occasion than do their nonathlete peers." Further, white athletes drink more than black or Hispanic ones, and team leaders are no more likely to turn down drinks than the lowliest benchwarmer on the squad. "Some studies have shown that college and high school athletes begin drinking at earlier ages, and engage in more risky behaviors than do individuals who have never been athletes," the authors add.

At least where I live, there's no uniformity among coaches in how to respond to news of binge drinking among high school athletes. While some coaches are fairly strict, others allow lots of wiggle room -- maybe you're suspended for a game or two, maybe we both pretend I know nothing about it, maybe it's none of my business -- sending kids the odd mixed message, "don't drink... not!"

As for parents, some continue to provide alcohol to their kids and their kids' friends. A survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration confirms it: 26 percent of kids get their alcohol from someone in their family, and 25 percent from an unrelated adult; only 10 percent of kids take the booze from their own home. Locally, fresh examples abound of parents helping kids get liquor or politely ignoring the solo cups and empties from their teenager's party. Last fall, for instance, some parents in town served jello shots to their daughter and her friends at a semi-formal "after party" they hosted for ninth and tenth graders. In the next town over, a city councilman stayed out of the way while his daughter's high school basketball team drank openly and merrily. From what I hear, no one said boo.

And the good news, you're wondering?

Promising new research out of Penn State indicates that parents who adopt simple conversational tools with their kids can transform the way these children approach drinking. The lengthy study carried out by Dr. Turrisi includes easy tips: talk about alcohol, listen and don't lecture and discuss rules and consequences of drinking, to name a few. When parents follow these guidelines, Turrisi found, underage drinking declines by up to 30 percent. "Now we know from research that parents who talk to their kids frequently about drinking -- it's very effective in reducing underage drinking," Jan Withers, the National President of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, told me. MADD has turned this information into a guide for parents, available here.

Withers has a personal interest in cutting teenage alcohol use. Twenty years ago, a 17-year-old drunk driver who thought it would be fun to scare his passengers, drove up to 100 mph before losing control and slamming his car through a guard rail. Withers' 15-year-old daughter Alisa, a high school sophomore, was thrown out of the backseat into the woods. "She would be 35 right now," Withers said. Another passenger in the doomed car was Alisa's closest friend, who survived the accident with her own grievous wounds. She called Withers on the 20th anniversary of the event. "'Now I really appreciate all the stuff you went through'," Withers recalled her saying. Alisa's old friend has a child of her own now.

In Summit, Liz Woodall, who directs the ninth-through-twelfth graders at Kent Place, implores parents to resurrect their moral courage and confront the drinking problem in front of their faces -- including the challenge of other parents who can't be bothered to find out what's really going on at the late-night parties, at least until their child ends up in the ER. "You have to be able to be uncomfortable, and call people out," she told a group of us. "If adults don't call each other out, then girls have no role models for how to behave." Boys either, for that matter. We need to handle our own kids with similar courage, she advised. "If I can't get an answer from my child about whether a parent will be there at a party, then you can't go," she said. This requires overcoming the tendency among modern, wobbly parents -- and I count myself among them -- to avoid conflict with their children. "Sometimes you have to have it out with them," she said.

A long-time insider who is intimate with this town's tribal drinking customs isn't optimistic about change we can believe in. "There is no courage," he told me. "Everyone's a bunch of wusses."