Adults must play a leading role in preventing underage drinking

Underage drinking is a problem in this country, and stopping it is critically important to all of us.

Yes, even to those of us who sell alcohol for a living.

We do not want the business of anyone who is not 21 years old. Period. Diageo is committed to fighting underage drinking and promoting the responsible use of alcohol for adults 21 and older.

Fortunately, we are seeing progress: Underage drinking is on the decline. The University of Michigan’s annual Monitoring the Future survey on underage drinking, sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and released by President Bush just last month, shows underage drinking continues to decrease overall and the consumption of flavored beers by minors also continues to drop. Teen drinking has declined steadily since the mid-1990s, and underage drinking is at its lowest level since the study began in 1975. Monitoring the Future is the largest and most significant survey of youth drinking among 8th-, 10th- and 12th-grade students nationwide.

This likely comes as a surprise to many. That’s because there has been a great deal of misleading and patently false rhetoric surrounding underage drinking and effective ways to fight it. Unfortunately, some anti-alcohol advocates — particularly here in California — intentionally perpetuate these myths, misrepresenting the facts about the real nature of both the problem and potential solutions. This is not only dishonest, it also undermines the formation of credible, effective policy, and it is downright dangerous.

According to sociologists H. Wesley Perkins and Alan Berkowitz, the pioneers of social norms research, students generally overestimate how much and how frequently alcohol is consumed by their peers, and they often drink more to “keep up” with that overestimation. Simply correcting students’ misperceptions decreases heavy drinking and the dangers associated with such behavior.

This is promising research, and it is indicative of the importance of conveying accurate information on underage drinking, rather than the hyperbole some of our critics are fond of propagating.

The Monitoring the Future study found the number of eighth-graders who reported drinking an alcoholic beverage at least once in the 30 days prior to the survey has fallen by 40 percent since peaking in 1996. The decline, however, is not as dramatic in older students. Since their respective peaks, there was a one-fifth decline for 10th-graders and a one-sixth decline for 12th-graders.

The study’s authors hypothesize that the greater decline in underage drinking among eighth-graders may reflect their decreasing access to alcohol, which has dropped at a much higher rate than that of older students. When asked if they thought they could get alcohol if they wanted to, in the most recent survey 62 percent of eighth-graders thought they could get access, as compared to 75 percent in 1996.

While any access to alcohol by underage drinkers is too much, it is critical to recognize that the key to keeping alcohol away from kids is targeting their No. 1 source of alcohol: adults. A study conducted by The Century Council, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to fighting underage drinking, found that 65 percent of teens who drink obtain the alcohol from adult family members and friends. The importance of parents in preventing underage drinking is also stressed in the 2006 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Comprehensive Plan for Preventing and Reducing Underage Drinking and the 2007 Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking.

Recognizing that the key to reducing underage drinking lies in restricting teens’ access to alcohol, Diageo supported a bill signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Oct. 14, 2007, increasing penalties for adults who knowingly provide alcohol to minors, increasing penalties for minors who attempt to purchase alcohol and increasing penalties for minors in possession of alcohol.

Reflecting our seriousness about this issue, Diageo also has introduced legislation in more than 20 states that calls for suspending the driver’s license of any adult who knowingly furnishes alcohol to minors.

Legislation is just one way to combat this complex, multifaceted problem. Another is to invest — as Diageo has — in programs like the Century Council, which takes the fight against alcohol misuse directly to teens, college students and parents. If we have any chance of ending underage drinking — and I believe we do — we will all need to work collaboratively toward a solution-oriented approach. Let’s join together and focus on the real issue: taking responsibility for keeping alcohol out of the hands of our kids.

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