Underage Drinking: New Year's Reminds Us To Be Vigilant

Staggering statistics about teen drinking – and laws jailing adults for providing alcohol to minors – should be a wake-up call for parents.


New Year's celebrations always bring the issue of drinking to mind. Sadly, it's not the optimism inspired by a fresh start that will mark 2012's first news reports, but the tragedy involving deaths of teenagers due to underage drinking.

A study by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that an “estimated 1,980 underage-drinking related emergency visits were made on Jan. 1, 2009.” This is a staggering number when compared to the national average of 546 intoxicated-minor ER visits per day.

The Alcohol Policy Panel of San Diego reported that in 2008 there were 105 fatal collisions involving 15 to 20 year olds who had been drinking. All of them were preventable.

The Partnership for a Drug-Free America and MetLife Foundation reported “alarming patterns in early adolescent alcohol” use in 2010. According to the study:

• Of those teens who reported alcohol use, 62 percent said they had their first full alcoholic drink by age 15, not including sipping or tasting alcohol.

• Of those teens who reported alcohol use, 25 percent, said they drank a full alcoholic drink for the first time by age 12 or younger.

• Among teens who reported drinking alcohol, the average age at which they had their first taste was 14.

Underage drinking, though illegal, is rampant among teenagers. Most are aware that laws are in place to protect those under 21 years of age in California from the dangers of alcohol, but also to punish those who violate underage drinking regulations.

You may not be alarmed to know that house parties with alcohol and parental consent are the most common places where underage drinking occurs.

Vicki Walker is a coordinator with the Orange County Department of Education's Safe and Drug Free Schools program. “Parents or other family members who do not feel that alcohol is harmful or believe it is a rite of passage often are the ones who furnish alcohol to minors, and those minors are often not their own children,” she said.  

Earlier this year, the Social Host Ordinance in California was modified to allow for the arrest of any adult(s) who consciously or unknowingly allow minors to consume alcohol in their homes.

The TODAY Show reported a good example of the dilemma many parents face today. Over Thanksgiving, after they found alcohol at the party he was hosting for his son's football team.  

Bill Burnett was charged with 44 counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor – one count for each of the 16 and 17 year-old kids at the party – and claims he didn't know alcohol was present.

Adults know kids (not in general, but in overwhelming numbers) will and do sneak in alcohol every opportunity they have; during school, at sporting events, concerts and house parties – and they are very creative about it (vodka-filled water bottles are so old school).

Kids also provide alcohol to their friends. Adding to this challenge is a code of silence teens observe to avoid being ostracized from the social scene.

California has a Zero Tolerance Law. If 0.01% of blood-alcohol concentration is found in an under-21 driver, at the very least their license can be suspended.

Parents Talk ponders this question as we head into a weekend of New Year's celebrations: Are parents failing to perform their duties to protect kids and contributing to the delinquency of minors by turning a blind eye to house parties where there's alcohol?

From our Patch Parents Talk group we wish all of you a safe
and Happy New Year!

Tonia Accetta: Alcohol consumption at this time of year is part of the festivities, but this is not supposed to apply to our kids. They are under peer pressure to conform to the underage drinking culture or suffer the consequences, which could mean being pushed out altogether from the teen social scene. This is another form of bullying that does not come from a friend, but those so-called frenemys.

One worrying factor was a survey recently, linking a higher chance of unprotected sex with the use of alcohol. This age group is transitioning into adulthood and they cannot do this if you keep them tied to your hip, so there is a level of trust that you must have with your teen to make good choices and then consequences for bad behavior that must be followed through by the parent.

Tom Dorow: As our children get older and gain more independence it is increasingly difficult for me to get to know their friends, but it's almost impossible to get to know their friends' parents. It is only through my own children that I hope to influence the choices they make, such as drinking, or drinking and driving. It would be naive for me to think kids are not going to drink before they are 21. However, I hope to instill in my children a strong sense of self-preservation and respect for human life, because this is what we are talking about, LIFE.  Drinking and driving is taking your life and others' into your own hands. 

I would not host a party of underage kids where alcohol is consumed, but we all know there will be parties with underage kids and alcohol somewhere. I hope my children will know it's OK to call home to get a ride if no one at the party is fit to drive because their safety and well-being is more important than 100-percent abstinence from alcohol. Sometimes I think we in the US emphasize the evils of alcohol when it's really what people do after they've consumed alcohol that's dangerous or offensive. It's the bad choices, such as driving under the influence, that endanger lives.

Our children have seen us out with our friends partying, but they also know we always have a designated driver or taxi. Last New Year's Eve we all made plans so that we would not be driving after the celebration. It's a way of life. Model responsible alcohol behavior to our children. They learn so many other things from us.

Kurt Sauter: I understand why there are Host Ordinances. We like to legislate behavior that we believe is in the best interest of society. We do this with many things related to personal responsibility. We have become a litigious society – and much of that has had positive effects.

Sometimes we need to examine if a law has the intended effects. What is the intended effect of the law – to give the parents of teens a strong incentive to provide oversight of parties to such an extent that it will prevent underage drinking. Will the law work? Perhaps in some cases it will help. What could the effect of the law be? It could discourage many of the caring, responsible and well-intentioned families from having any parties with teens at all.

Will that stop the underage drinking at parties? No. Parties with underage drinking will still occur. Where will they take place? In some, if not many cases the parties will occur at homes with less responsible, less concerned parents. Is that a good law? Is my theoretical analysis of the effect accurate? I have no idea – not even anecdotal since my boys are too young to get involved in underage drinking. 

The only thing I try to do at their age is talk to them about the choices of their friends. I ask them to observe behavior of kids at school and ask themselves if good choices are being made. I tell them that the kids who are knuckleheads now and make bad decisions may end up making bad decisions when they get older. I also explain that the consequences for bad choices as you get older get much more severe.

Losing your right to play video games for a week may seem bad but the consequences of underage drinking can be devastating. Again, I will have to keep my ears open for good advice from those in the trenches dealing with these issues right now.

Suzette Valle: We consider ourselves strict parents and have not wavered from teaching character and good judgment to our children. With one teenager and a 20-year-old college student, those lessons have been instilled in them and it is with great hope that we expect them to make the proper choices when it comes to their safety and that of their so-called friends. Sadly, some "friends" resist any good influence that might come their way in exchange for popularity and acceptance.

We found that the most difficult part to explain to our kids involves the behavior of other parents who not only allow their kids and their kids' friends to have keg parties and such in their own homes, but promote it. Popular kids have cool parents.

More disturbing for parents is to hear rumors of the purported ‘good kids’ who have become the distributors of alcohol at parties and other public events. This is perplexing since these apparently positive role models are not suspected and still held on pedestals for many teenagers to emulate both at school and in the community.

I think clear Zero Tolerance rules regarding underage drinking uniformly enforced in school districts and communities would have a more direct effect as a preventive measure than Host Ordinance laws alone might accomplish: Immediate permanent removal from a team or school leadership position; forfeiting of awards or recognition, and removal from any position of influence in school or in the community. These rules, together with the potential jailing of law-breaking parents, would be better deterrents.

Placing responsibility squarely on parents' shoulders is a step in the right direction to protect minors from underage drinking, but every adult and community member needs to pull together to keep teens safe.

It takes a village...


Tonia Accetta is stay-at-home mom of a teenage boy and a preteen girl. She moved to Coronado in 2002 with her husband of 15 years.

 Tam Dorow emigrated from Vietnam when she was 10. She worked at all of the Big 3 U.S. car companies and has been a stay-at-home mom of two for the last 10 years.

Kurt Sauter is a father of two sons, works part-time as a chief engineer and system architect and volunteers with Coronado youth sports organizations.

Suzette Valle is a 20-year Coronado resident who was recognized by Time Warner as one of the local “50 Best Moms” in 2006. She has appeared on the Dr. Phil Show and blogs at MamarazziKnowsBest.com.


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