The Herald Bulletin

April 19, 2010

Underage drinking costs high for county

Outlets in county fail compliance checks at higher rate

By Aleasha Sandley
The Herald Bulletin

ANDERSON, Ind. — For one Madison County teen, drinking alcohol seemed like a natural habit while growing up with an alcoholic mother who drinks every day.

The 17-year-old, who says he prefers hard liquor because “beer’s just too nasty,” gets his alcohol by standing outside a liquor store and waiting for someone to walk in who will buy it for him. Other times, he said, he steals it.

The boy, who did not want to be identified, spent part of 2009 attending court-ordered sessions at Madison County Sheriff’s Department chaplain Benny Santiago’s Project Hope created to mentor teens. His story is indicative of the alcohol culture that has permeated groups of teens throughout Indiana.

Households in Madison County spend about $530 on alcohol each year, according to a recently released study by Healthy, Tobacco Free Madison County, but the actual cost to the county is much higher, especially when the alcohol use involves those under 21.

Underage drinking cost the county almost $27.5 million in 2005, according to The Consumption and Consequences of Alcohol and Drugs in Madison County epidemiological profile done by HTFMC. That cost, which includes $2,124 per year for each youth in the county, takes into account youth violence, traffic accidents, high-risk sex, youth property crime, youth injury, alcohol poisoning and psychosis, fetal alcohol syndrome and youth alcohol treatment.

“One of the things we’ve heard pretty regularly when we’ve been involved with retailers is it’s important for them to be able to remain competitive in these difficult economic times and that (alcohol) really ultimately is something they need as a source of revenue,” said HTFMC’s Andrew Sprock, who put together the study. “In the big picture, making alcohol more easily available and more common will often have a more significant cost to our community, a cost that outweighs the benefits.

“We’re not advocating for elimination of alcohol, but for some more responsible policy and some recognition that this is not just a parent issue.”

According to the study, underage alcohol sales brought in $8 million to alcohol retailers in Madison County in 2005, with $3.4 million in profits. In 2005 in Indiana, there was $384 million in underage alcohol sales resulting in $186 million in profits.

Although the study found that about 20 percent of underage drinkers get alcohol from family members, Sprock said what stood out to him were results of Indiana State Excise Police compliance checks in Madison County. The checks show a 48.8 percent failure rate at Madison County alcohol retailers from April 2007 to March 2009, compared to a 34.5 percent failure rate in the rest of Indiana.

“Nearly half of the time a Madison County retailer is checked, they are found to be selling alcohol illegally,” the report says. “Another way of stating this is that, generally speaking, it is easier for an underage person to illegally purchase alcohol in Madison County than in the rest of the state.”

‘Community problem’

Most of the time, strangers aren’t willing to help a juvenile buy alcohol, the 17-year-old said. He said it was easier to get alcohol in his former state of California than it is in Anderson.

The average age of first alcohol use in Madison County is 12.8 for boys and 13.2 for girls, according to the HTFMC study. Younger children in the sixth-through-12th-grade sample studied in the report were more likely to get alcohol from their parents or other family members, while older youths had someone else buy it or received it from someone 21 or older.

“This is not just about what parents do or don’t do, but ultimately this is a community problem that we can take some responsibility for,” Sprock said. “I think (the study) would suggest that part of the reason why kids start (drinking) is because it’s accepted in their family and it’s part of what their family does and their family sees it as OK for them to do that.”

Parents often think that when they supervise their children while they drink, it makes it safe or that their children are going to drink regardless of whether they allow it, Sprock said. But allowing minors to drink has long-term consequences, he said, including alcohol dependence and stunted brain development.

“Even if we assume for a moment that they all make it home safely that night, ultimately just by the fact that they started drinking earlier, down the road they are much more likely to be involved in alcohol-related violence, they will binge drink more frequently or in more amounts and they’re much more likely to develop alcohol-related substance-abuse problems.

“It begins a process that I think many don’t recognize.”

If, on the other hand, access to alcohol is made more difficult, fewer minors will drink and the ones who do will drink less, resulting in a reduction of negative consequences in the long run, Sprock said.

Wendy Cook of HTFMC said that organization was going to mount a campaign in the spring urging parents to think twice before offering alcohol to their children and their friends. The campaign, “Parents Who Host Lose the Most,” will use billboards and radio spots to reach parents.

In the meantime, HTFMC has been presenting a social host ordinance to city and town councils around the county that would make it easier for law enforcement officials to cite parents who host underage drinking parties. The ordinance would allow police to treat the incident as a civil matter, giving them the ability to write tickets for offenses.

Cook said that now many underage drinking incidents aren’t prosecuted because of the amount of paperwork involved in the criminal court system.

“Logistically, with the paperwork involved in it, it’s a very long process,” Cook said. “There just wasn’t anything that could really be done that wouldn’t take a ton of paperwork. (The ordinance) would eliminate much of the paperwork. It would make for a more immediate response and the follow-through would be more likely.”

Students see low risk

Locally, the towns of Lapel and Pendleton have expressed interest in the ordinance, and Cook said other communities in Indiana have passed similar legislation sponsored by the Indiana Coalition to Reduce Underage Drinking.

According to the HTFMC report, 60 percent of respondents reported using alcohol within the previous year. The same percentage of students think there is little to no risk in having one or two drinks on occasion, while 65 percent of students think there is significant risk in binge drinking weekly.

Madison County Juvenile Court Judge George Pancol said reasons vary for youths who use alcohol. Pancol deals with juveniles who face underage drinking charges, which often are coupled with other charges, he said.

“There’s usually more  than just alcohol,” Pancol said. “A lot of them that come in, they’re testing positive for marijuana. It’s just kind of a combination of things.

“A lot of it is to just escape some of the realities. We have some teenagers in some pretty tough situations. If your friends are all drinking and you’re not, it kind of tends to make you the outcast. Every year that goes by, it just seems like it’s more accepted. They just all kind of buy into it.”

Anderson Police Department public information officer Mitch Carroll provided The Herald Bulletin with APD statistics that show 123 alcohol-related juvenile arrests and 894 alcohol-related adult arrests in 2009.

Illegal possession, consumption or transportation by a person under 21 is a Class C misdemeanor, which carries a prison term of up to 60 days and a fine of up $500. Public intoxication is a Class A misdemeanor, which carries a prison term of up to one year and a fine of up to $5,000.

Often, however, Pancol said he treats underage drinking cases in other ways.

“If a child comes in under a delinquency petition, probably the least restrictive is to put them on probation,” Pancol said. “We check to see if they’re going to school. We try to keep up on not only alcohol but all their behavior.”

More serious substance-abuse problems will result in juveniles being placed in treatment programs, either in-patient or outpatient, Pancol said.

“Getting a handle on that early as a teenager is very important,” he said. “Teenage drinking leads to alcoholism later in life.

“Unfortunately we do see a lot of repeat offenders, and we keep stepping up the sanctions.”