Binge Drinking on the Rise for Younger Teens

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(Sacramento, CA)
Tuesday, November 11, 2008

It was two years ago when Leandra Ybarra almost died from alcohol poisoning. She was 15 and skipped school with her friends to go down to the river to drink some rum. 

“I finished a whole bottle in less than 30 minutes or so, I mean I blacked out the last thing I honestly remember is my fishing pole falling into the river, since we were down hill they had to actually drag me up and when I was in the hospital all my jewelry was missing and I had bruises and cuts and like, like, hand marks like of their fingers from grabbing me and pulling me up.” 
Ybarra is now a senior at Pioneer High School in Woodland, north of Sacramento. She looks down when talking about what happened after she blacked out and her so-called friends got scared. 
“They ended up leaving me at some apartment complexes. When they left me it was because I wasn’t waking up and I was unconscious and I couldn’t breathe. They deny the fact that they left me for dead but I mean there was no way that they tried to help afterwards.”
When Ybarra got to the hospital, her blood alcohol level was 0.5 – that’s five times the legal limit. She was hospitalized for a week. Ybarra’s mom, a single-parent, Lucinda Barron, says she was in shock when she got the news.

“I didn’t think it would happen to my kid. A lot of the times when your kids away from you really don’t know what they’re doing. These kids go to parties and you know that there’s alcohol. I would say at least 80 percent of the time.” 

And Ybarra says her mom is right – she estimates about three-quarters of the kids at her school drink, often at house parties with people in their 20s.  And says for many teens, it’s all about how much they can drink.

“There’s no I’m going to have a buzz and I’ll be OK, they drink as much as they can take in before either blacking out or passing out.” 
Life threatening events like Ybarra’s are on the rise according to new research from the UC Davis Medical Center. In the last three years they’ve seen a 30 percent increase in kids between 12 and 17 coming to the ER with trauma from binge drinking. Christy Adams is a Registered Nurse at UCD Med Center.

“We are seeing younger children coming into our Emergency Department as young as nine and we did actually have a six year old that came in intoxicated.” 
These days Adams says many kids take their first drink before they’re thirteen.  Experts can’t point to one clear reason for this trend, but they say there are two potential factors: a lack of parenting coupled with increased marketing to youngsters by the alcohol industry. Adams says many parents just don’t think underage drinking is a big deal.

“There is a general complacency within parents and within society as a whole that it’s OK for teens to drink if it’s in the home, it’s a safe environment is what they’re assuming, it’s a rite of passage or I did it as a teen and I turned out OK.” 

At the same time, watchdog groups claim the alcohol industry is targeting a younger audience – middle and high school kids. Michael Scippa is with the Marin Institute.  He says this clever marketing -- and packaging -- helps teens get alcohol.  
“Youth have gone shopping with a parent, in a grocery store and the youth will put in a six pack of Sparks which is an alcoholic energy drink that looks remarkably like orange soda, and the parent will just pass through the check out line with it.” 
Scippa says these are called “alcopops” – energy drinks with alcohol, or sweetened alcoholic products like Mike’s Hard Lemonade. He says they’re meant for underage drinkers. 

But, Alcohol industry representatives deny the allegations and say authorities should instead go after adults who supply alcohol to kids.  Zsoka McDonald is with Diageo North America, which makes flavored malt beverages like Smirnoff Ice.

“Diageo does not want the business of anyone under the legal drinking age, nor do we market our products to anyone underage.” 
Different groups are taking action to stop teen drinking. UC Davis Medical Center and a few other regional trauma hospitals got a $600,000 grant to address the problem. They’ll train ER nurses to do immediate interventions or “wake-up calls” about underage drinking on-site with the teens and their parents. In the last year, the California legislature was the first in the country to pass a law forcing alcopop makers to put bigger labels displaying alcohol content on their products. 

And teenagers themselves are doing their part. After her near-death experience Leandra Ybarra decided to become an example for others. She's given presentations at her school and she's a leader in a teen peer group that's trying to stop underage drinking.