MAIN LIBRARY — For many parents, stories in the newspaper about teens who have died after a night of drinking are sobering reminders of the tragic consequences underage alcohol consumption can have.

While preventing deaths from teenage binge drinking is the main goal for public safety officials, pediatricians and others who regularly confront the issue, a growing body of research, doctors say, is providing a broader basis for parents to focus on preventing — or at least delaying — teenagers’ experimentation with alcohol.

Sparked by growing concern about teenagers’ drinking habits, there’s also a potential new law under consideration that could further complicate the picture for parents by making adults civilly liable for knowingly providing alcohol to minors.

Under the proposal, which would scale back California’s historically broad “social hosting” protections, attempting to keep adolescents safe by allowing them to drink at home would become riskier than ever.

Taken together, the developments mean it’s a good time for parents to re-commit to dealing with the issue responsibly, according to a panel of experts from diverse fields assembled at Santa Monica’s Main Library on Tuesday evening for an event put on by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The event was one of some 2,000 similar gatherings the national organization is holding around the country aimed at getting communities to educate their teens about the dangers of drinking.

Many traditional strategies for combating the dangers of teen drinking, like confiscating car keys before a party or holding get-togethers with a limited amount of alcohol, often fail to protect minors, said Trisha Roth, a pediatrician who organized the panel. That means it’s all the more necessary for parents to have a frank conversation about alcohol’s dangers.

“Parents cannot keep impaired kids safe,” she said. “It’s like herding cats.”

Not every teen is curious about drinking, the experts said, but studies show many will dabble with alcohol, so it’s a topic that shouldn’t be ignored.

While headline-grabbing incidents like the recent death of a South Pasadena High School student after a party may cause the most alarm about the issue, it’s not just the risk that a teen will overdose on alcohol or make a bad decision while under the influence that should concern parents — there’s also evidence adolescent drinking can harm brain development, which continues into the mid 20s, and cause long term cognitive and social problems, said Brandy Cohen-Brown, a psychiatrist who spoke at the event.

She said while avoiding alcohol altogether is best, it’s often more practical for parents to focus on “harm reduction.”

“The new data supports that the longer you can get them to wait, the better off they will be with regard to brain function. Every year does make a difference,” she said. “You may not be able to get them to wait until they’re 21, but if you can push 14 to 16, you’ve done something huge.”

Cognitive problems linked to heavy alcohol use during adolescence, she said, include difficulties with memory, focus and mood stability, as well as disruptions in the development of the brain’s frontal lobe. She said it’s still not known if damage that occurs during adolescence is reversible.

Informing kids about the neurological risks of teenage drinking, several experts said, can act as an important deterrent, especially for health-minded adolescents.

Those risks aside, there are also legal reasons for parents to take a more active role in preventing alcohol abuse by teenagers.

While there’s already a criminal penalty for adults who knowingly provide minors with alcohol, state law makes it very difficult to sue a “social host” for damages if an accident occurs as a result of alcohol consumed at the host’s party.

Since the 1970s, the thinking has been that individuals who drink should be held responsible for their actions, not those who hold gatherings where alcohol is served.

Growing concern about youth drinking, though, could result in the Legislature scaling back social hosts’ legal protections when it comes to parties where minors drink illegally.

A bill introduced by California Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles), would allow victims of alcohol related accidents and their families to sue hosts for causing the damage by knowingly providing alcohol to minors.

The bill, AB 2486, unanimously passed the judiciary committee in March and is pending before the full chamber.

Arianna Smith, a legislative aid to Feuer, said the point of the bill is to add an extra deterrent for parents who think it’s OK to allow adolescents to drink.

“The hope is that this will cause this kind of behavior to go down,” she said.

Attorney John Doyle, who spoke at Tuesday’s event, said 39 states have already adopted similar laws. If enacted in California, the law would still require plaintiffs to prove a host had been negligent in allowing alcohol to be consumed by minors, Doyle said, but it could go a long way toward preventing injuries and deaths from alcohol.

“It will at least open the door to having the civil courts assign legal responsibility to adults for providing alcohol to teens,” he said.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics:

• Teens whose parents talk with them regularly about drugs and alcohol are 42 percent less likely to use substances than those whose parents don’t.

• Alcohol affects teens differently than adults. Teens are more likely to remain awake, to wander about or to drive a car while having a high degree of mental impairment from alcohol.

• Teens are more likely to have sex, be involved in a violent accident, or suffer an injury after using drugs or alcohol.

nickt@www.smdp.com

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