Teens and alcohol

Sunday, December 5, 2004

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Mix teenagers and alcohol and you get a cocktail that combines bad judgment, inexperience and lowered inhibitions. That's a recipe for risky behavior, from drunk driving to unprotected sex.

It's also a recipe with which many parents have first-hand experience, back in the day when dinosaurs roamed the earth. That, and the social acceptability of alcohol, may be why some adults turn a blind eye to teen drinking.

But should we put the parents of kids who drink in jail? Should we arrest kids just for being drunk even if they aren't breaking any other laws? A group of Missouri lawmakers thinks the answer to both questions is yes and has introduced a bill to criminalize teen drunkenness.

We are on record as opposing parental stupidity. Parents who condone underage drinking, especially drinking with rowdy friends and no adult supervision, are tempting fate. We tell our own kids that there will be time enough for partying later -- in moderation of course -- when they're of age and on their own.

And yet there's something about this attempt to legislate parental common sense that makes us uneasy. It goes well beyond the fact that teen drinking actually is declining in Missouri, though binge drinking is all too common.

State Sen. Michael Gibbons, R-Kirkwood, the bill's sponsor, is a level-headed guy. He said he was motivated in part by a recent drinking party in his neighborhood. But Mr. Gibbons should ask himself a question: How will this bill make things better? ... And it's already illegal for teens to buy, try to buy, possess or drive under the influence of alcohol. Do we really think, after all that, we can stop kids from drinking by making it illegal to be drunk? The real target of this bill, of course, is the irresponsible parents or adults who know about teen drinking under their roof but ignore it. Do we really think these parents are going to wise up if state law makes it a misdemeanor to knowingly let kids drink on their property? ...

The committee that recommended this new law rejected increasing alcohol taxes to fund sobriety education programs for the schools. But that is something that might actually work. Missouri's alcohol taxes are among the nation's lowest. It seems that raising them is politically untenable in the state of Anheuser-Busch and no-tax Republicans.

Rather than do something meaningful about teen drinking, legislators have chosen to propose tough-sounding legislation and declare victory. If only solving the problem were that easy.

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