Laura Searcy: Underage Drinking Over Winter Holidays on the Rise: Incidents and Issues

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The Kennesaw Police Department’s response to a citizen complaint, which resulted in the arrest of 32 people involved in an underage drinking party on December 29, is to be applauded. As law enforcement officers entrusted with maintaining the peace and protecting public safety, the KPD fulfilled their duty by enforcing the law. But recent coverage (in the Marietta Daily Journal) of this incident does not tell the whole story.

“According to estimates from SAMHSA  [the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration] Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), on New Year’s Day 2009, an estimated 1,980 ED [emergency department] visits involved underage drinking, compared with 546 such visits on an average day that year; this represents nearly 4 times the average number of visits….The number of ED visits involving underage drinking was also generally higher on New Year’s Day than on an average day during either the Memorial Day weekend or the Fourth of July weekend.” The report cites “greater access to alcohol, less parental oversight and mixed messages from parents” as influencing this uptick in underage drinking and increased ED visits.

The findings are in line with other research showing more alcohol-related problems over the winter holidays. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism two to three times more people die in alcohol-related vehicle crashes over the winter holidays compared to periods during the rest of the year. Also, traffic fatalities involving an alcohol-impaired driver average 28% in December, but rise sharply to 40% over the holiday period.

Stories and conversations about underage drinking often focus on legal issues, but there’s more; what about the research that indicates the substantial harm alcohol poses to youth and the harm underage drinkers impose on others?  Alcohol is the top threat to youth health and safety in America, causing more injury and death than all illegal drugs, combined. It’s time more people accept underage drinking as illegal and unhealthy and not a harmless and normal rite of passage.

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Laura Searcy is a pediatric nurse practitioner and youth injury prevention specialist practicing in Cobb for the past 19 years. She is also a Cobb Alcohol Taskforce board member and former member of the Cobb County Board of Education.

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