HCN Article

This article was published in the Houston Community Newspapers in all their locations across the greater Houston Area in June 2004.

Teen Drinking Continues To Be A Big Problem In State

By ANNE B. GESALMAN, Contributing Writer On June 02, 2004

Sixth grade. It's the time when school children are learning about ratios in math class, world politics in social studies and Bunsen burners in science.

It's also the time that, outside of school and alone with their friends, they're learning firsthand about beer, wine and vodka.

According to a recent state study, Texas public school children who drink, begin drinking on average at the age of 12, many as young as 9 - fourth graders. By the time they are high school seniors, a staggering 71percent of students have drunk alcohol, and more than a third have done so in the last month.

Indeed, drinking alcohol - and more often getting drunk - is as much a part of the teenage experience as battling acne, going to homecoming and learning how to drive.

But while much attention is given to warning youths about the dangers of harder drugs such as inhalants, marijuana and cocaine, alcohol consumption continues to pose the larger threat to the health and futures of teens, experts say. And because it is far more easy to obtain and its dangers are underestimated, teens of all socio-economic backgrounds are drinking, and drinking heavily, without fully understanding the consequences.

"Alcohol abuse is an equal opportunity destroyer," says Mel Taylor, president of the Council on Alcohol and Drugs - Houston. "Let's remember its prevalence. You can add up (the frequency) of all the drugs out there and they would not even amount to 10 percent of the alcohol. There is a tendency to over-dramatize drug use, but somehow it's socially acceptable to drink. But for anyone under 21, it's illegal and it's dangerous."

State officials agree. "Drinking leads to so many other problems," says Debra Jones, acting captain of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission's Conroe region. "Violence, unwanted sexual activity, absenteeism at school. It just upsets the quality of life all the way around."

Because of the magnitude of the problem, the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse in Austin, every other year since 1988, has conducted two major statewide surveys of elementary and secondary school children to determine alcohol and drug use habits. One survey is of students in fourth through sixth grades. The other is of students in seventh through twelfth grades.

Researchers at Texas A&M University, which helps administer the surveys, completed another round of them in the last couple of months, collecting tens of thousands of questionnaires from students, and are compiling their data to report in the upcoming school year, says the commission's Dr. Liang Liu, author of the final reports.

Although its too soon to know what the new surveys will show, there's no reason to believe that teen drinking does not continue to be a big problem in the state, Dr. Liu says.

"People don't understand how dangerous alcohol is, especially when you are talking about young kids," she says in a recent interview.

The most recently completed reports of pre-teen and teen drinking habits were conducted in the spring 2002. Researchers polled 88,929 fourth through sixth graders in 70 school districts, and 149,220 students in seventh through twelfth grades in 77 districts. In the Greater Houston area, the school districts of Houston, Humble, Spring Branch, Alvin and Pearland were included in the 2002 surveys. (New districts are selected each survey year.)

The surveys showed what researchers and advocates of youth called an alarming prevalence of alcohol use about children from grades four through twelve.

Specifically, they found that 12 percent of all fourth graders - typically 9- and 10-year-olds - had drunk alcohol in the previous year. That increased to 14 percent of fifth graders and 22 percent - almost one in four - of sixth graders.

"Many young students began drinking at an early age," Dr. Liu writes in the Texas School Survey of Substance Use Among Students Grade 4-6. "Nearly 60 percent of lifetime alcohol users in elementary school said they had first started drinking alcohol when they were 9 years old or younger." Lifetime users are defined as students who report having drunk alcohol at all in their life.

In junior high, consumption of alcohol only continued to increase as did the frequency, according to the Texas School Survey of Substance Use Among Students Grade 7-12. Nearly 18 percent of seventh graders reported drinking alcohol in the previous month, 26 percent of eighth graders, 36 percent of ninth graders, 40 percent of 10th graders, 42 percent of eleventh graders and 51 percent - more than half - of high school seniors.

Bilal Zakaria, a 17-year-old recent graduate of Dulles High School in Sugar Land, agreed that alcohol use is everywhere among high school students, especially seniors who seem to spend a year celebrating everything from homecoming to prom to graduation.

"I haven't been to that many parties, but when I've been to any there is almost always something to drink," says Zakaria, who served last year on the Sugar Land Mayor's Advisory Council to Improve Police/Community Relations.

"Most of the parties happen senior year," he explains. "You really see drinking increase in the spring semester. People aren't showing up at school after a weekend of big-time partying. And teachers are not as demanding of the seniors so they have a lot of free time."

Gloria Cheng, who served on the same panel as Zakaria, agrees.

"Drinking is not even a big deal anymore," says Cheng, who, like Zakaria, says she's among those that don't drink. "People don't even brag about it.

The surveys also showed that the type of beverage consumed by kids also changed as kids got older, seeming to indicate that children moved on to the next harder beverage when they bored of one. Children tend to start out drinking beer in elementary school, according to the surveys, but progress to wine coolers through junior high and hard liquor through high school.

"Wine coolers were the favorite alcoholic beverage among lifetime alcohol drinkers, yet beer was the most common beverage among past-month drinkers," Dr. Liu writes in the report on older kids.

She also noted that kids typically drink to get drunk. Seventeen percent of all secondary students said that when they drank, they usually drank five or more beers at one time. Fourteen percent said they binged on wine coolers or liquor.

"Heavy consumption of alcohol or binge drinking, which is defined as drinking five or more drinks at one time, is of concern, especially when done by young people," Dr. Liu writes.

Taylor of the Council on Alcohol and Drugs says those statistics don't surprise him. He says he noticed the dangerous trend develop in recent years of kids, younger and younger all the time, drinking to get not just tipsy, but falling-down drunk.

"Kids want to get wasted," Taylor says. "It's just that simple. Their idea of partying is drinking until you get sick or throw up."

So why do kids want to drink and get drunk?

Shanna Stauffacher, who teachers a state-certified alcohol awareness class for teens in trouble with the law, says she asks that questions over and over and typically gets the same answer.

"We're bored," she says they tell her.

Minors who are caught in possession of alcohol or who drive drunk typically are ordered by judges to take a standardized state program like Stauffacher's. Her Alcohol Awareness Associates has been offering the 6-hour courses in Kingwood for nearly five years and in League City for the last several months.

Minors who are caught possessing, purchasing or consuming alcohol, or for driving with any amount of alcohol in the system may be charged with a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500, mandated participation in an alcohol awareness course, community service and suspension of the driver's license.

Most of Stauffacher's students are between the ages of 17 and 20, she says. "But I've had them as young as 12."

The students learn about social values and drinking; the destructive effects of alcohol on the brain, alcohol as it is portrayed through advertising, and state laws, among other topics. At the end of the course, students must pass a test before they get credit for attendance. When compared with a test they take before beginning the class, students demonstrate a huge increase in how much they understand about alcohol abuse, Stauffacher says.

"When they come in, they're making 30s and 40s and 50s on the test," she says. "And when they leave they're making 80s, 90s and 100s."

In exit interviews, very few students say they'll stop drinking altogether, she says. "But they do say they'll be more responsible. I see very few drooping eyelids in my classes."

Some parents bring their children in to take the class even if they haven't been charged with a crime, Stauffacher says. Perhaps an older sibling was ordered to take the class by a judge and his younger brother or sister is brought along too, she says. That's a good idea, she adds, because it reduces that child's chances of getting in trouble with the law down the road.

Not all parents are as responsible, however. Cheng and Zakaria both say they know teens whose parents allow their children to drink, even supplying the alcohol themselves.

"I have one or two friends who I know their parents don't mind if they drink," says Cheng. "Then I have other friends whose parents just don't care at all."

Adds Zakaria, "Parents are supposed to teach us what is right and wrong. If they don't set the limits, why should we?"

Taylor says parents who buy their children a keg for a party in the backyard are wrongly assuming that that is a better option than their children going elsewhere to drink.

While their own children may be able to safely go to their rooms and sleep off intoxication, "that doesn't speak to the other kids who are getting wasted in their backyard, going out and getting in cars and driving away."

Parents who host private parties and provide alcohol to minors face up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine.

A better alternative for parents, Taylor says, is to spend more time with their children.

"What can you do for your kids?" Taylor asks. "Back back to family dinners. Get back into their lives. "We're talking about getting back involved in what your children are doing and not leaving that to soccer coaches or others."

Complete copies of the Texas School Surveys can be found on the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Web site at http://www.tcada.state.tx.us More information about the Alcohol Awareness Associates programs in Kingwood and League City can be found at http://www.alcoholawarenessassociates.com. That site also offers links to several related Web sites.

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