Underage drinking
still rampant in isles

First-time drinkers average
12 years of age, an official says

One in seven Hawaii fourth-graders have gotten drunk, according to a 2002 state survey of isle students.

"The age of alcohol use has been dropping, and you now have sixth-graders who meet the criteria for treatment," said Elaine Wilson, chief of the state Health Department's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division.

She said 12 years is the average age for students taking their first drink. And of 2,916 sixth- to 12th-graders, 2.7 percent drink heavily enough to be considered in need of treatment for alcohol abuse or dependence, according to the survey.

Wilson will present these and other statistics at next week's Hawaii Drug Control Strategy Summit, led by Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona.

She said some parents of teenagers don't think underage drinking is a big deal.


"When I make a presentation to them, they're amazed kids as young as fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders are drinking," she said.

And they drink a lot, she said. Instead of one or two beers, they drink a whole six-pack, she said.

"They do binge drinking and put themselves in risky situations," Wilson said.

Wilson and Mothers Against Drug Driving-Hawaii leaders are hoping a national study released Tuesday about the dangers of underage drinking will hit home. It said more young people drink alcohol than use other drugs or smoke tobacco, and that underage drinking costs the country an estimated $53 billion annually in losses from traffic fatalities, violent crime and other behaviors.

The report by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Science recommends a state-federal commitment and a federally funded national media effort to combat underage drinking. It also recommends that Congress and state legislators raise excise tax rates on alcohol -- especially beer, the alcohol of choice for most young drinkers.

"Parents underestimate teen drinking and their own (children) in particular," Wilson said. "What messages do we give to parents so they know how serious it is?"

They don't realize that alcohol frequently is involved in the three leading causes of death for 15- to 24-year-olds -- motor vehicle crashes, homicides and suicides -- she said.

The 2002 student survey shows the number of Hawaii youths drinking alcohol is slowly dropping, Wilson said.

But the percentage of those who drink alcohol daily is still twice the national rate, including 1.8 percent of eighth-graders, 2.5 percent of 10th-graders and 3.3 percent of 12th-graders, she said.

The survey showed 2 percent of eighth-graders, 4 percent of 10th-graders and 6 percent of 12th-graders met the criteria for treatment for alcohol abuse or dependence. Twenty-one percent of 12th-graders qualified for treatment for any substance abuse.

"Alcohol is No. 1 in Hawaii, and it kills six times as many young people as all other illegal drugs put together," said Carol McNamee, MADD-Hawaii founder.

Last year, according to the Honolulu Police Department, 29.4 percent of 16- to 20-year-old drivers in fatal car crashes had at least 0.08 percent blood-alcohol content -- the minimum level for which a drunken-driving charge could be filed, she said. That's twice the national average and an increase from about 24 percent a couple years ago, she said.

Drinking patterns among young people have changed over the years, and more youths have access to vehicles, McNamee said. "Consequences of these actions are very serious and could be deadly, and parents still are of the mind that it's not a problem to offer or to provide alcohol to minors or even to have parties for young people in homes before they reach 21."


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