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Carl Smith

We hear a lot about the dangers of underage alcohol consumption. Depending on who you are asking, the national cost is anywhere from $10 to $100 billion yearly, not to mention the lives lost to drunk driving and alcohol poisoning. The natural response for many people is to “get tough,” a message promoted by the OLCC and local policing agencies.

As a society, not only do we want to protect our minors from themselves and others, but we want to encourage them to live their lives in a generally safe manner. Unfortunately to do this we have set up a punishment system that hands out citations, fines and criminal records, but is totally ignorant as to why and how underage drinkers drink in the first place.

The politicians and bureaucrats that champion the “get tough” approach like it because it sounds good. It sounds like action and people want action. If there is one truth you must accept, it is this: You can’t regulate teen attitudes. What these bureaucrats cannot give you is the reasons why, the causality from a to b and from b to c.

I am an underage drinker. I know why kids drink and how they drink because I’ve done it all. I will be legal in a couple of months and I want to share with you what I have learned so that we can formulate a better approach to tackle the dangers of underage drinking. The first thing we need to realize is that stricter legislation does in no way decrease consumption of alcohol by minors. The reason why there is a decline, statistically speaking, is not because heftier laws make minors drink less, but because it makes them take more interest in not getting caught. This translates to a decline in house parties (which are in or near town) and an increase in remote keggers. In the course of my high school career, the keggers literally got another 15 miles farther away from town.

Rich Miller of the OLCC highlights this in a August 2001 press release stating that this past summer the “OLCC and other law officers, have been patrolling rural areas such as Applegate Lake, campgrounds and other places to prevent or stop underage drinking parties …” That seems nice, but the effect is much deadlier than you might imagine. In a bar or a tavern, with other activities to take up your time, it is fairly easy to be the designated driver. The same is true for many underage house parties.

At keggers and parties in the middle of nowhere, there isn’t anything to do but drink. Drinking is the only objective at this type of party, and the peer pressure to drink – and drink a lot – are intense. At an outdoor kegger there is no safety net, and so there are very few truly sober designated drivers and a whole lot of really drunk ones. A drunk driver with a car full of drunk passengers is a tragic disaster waiting to happen. The problem is only amplified when the OLCC arrives (if they actually find the party, which is rare) because everyone scatters and takes off as fast as they can. Now you not only have a bunch of drunk drivers, you have a bunch of drunk drivers driving scared and fast.

Another adverse effect of harsh drinking laws is the inability of youth in dangerous situations to ask for help. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a borderline alcohol poisoning case not taken to the hospital because either the dangerously drunk individual or the people who would be taking him did not want to risk getting caught. It is perception and fear that make those decisions, which are directly related to the severity of the law.

The point is that whoever is in charge of this whole operation has no grasp on the reality of how and why young adults drink. They continue to throw millions of dollars and heftier sentences at the problem because they have no idea of what else to do, but they need to look like they are doing something or they will lose their funding. We have an $850 million budget deficit yet we spend $100 million a year to create big ineffectual “solutions” to teen drinking.

If we want to prevent the tragedies of drunk driving, alcohol poisoning and other alcohol related accidents we may have to take a different position on how to deal with alcohol use. Instead of treating underage drinkers and those who provide alcohol like criminals, maybe we should try to understand why they drink, and formulate strategies to educate and protect our youth.

We don’t need to coerce, scare or intimidate youth into abstinence. Honest straightforward education will reduce instances of binge drinking and improve safety habits when young adults do drink. Current government programs, like the OLCC, will not be able to accomplish this goal. The OLCC is a lumbering, inefficient and expensive bureaucracy, but most important, it does not and will not have the trust of the target audience. The students must have faith in the information and must trust the source. The OLCC’s history of cracking down on teen alcohol use precludes this trust. We should consider replacing the OLCC with a smaller, more flexible, efficient and effective team of counselors and teachers who can actually relate to youth and therefore teach them. Continuing to blindly slug away at the problem is like doing surgery with a butcher knife. It is only making things worse. If we really want to make a difference we need to make a change, now.

Carl Smith

Eugene, Oregon