Results from a recently published survey of Santa Monica teens revealed striking statistics about underage drinking perceptions and behaviors, including:

o Most believe alcohol is “somewhat” or “very easy” to get (86%)

o 1 in 4 report they “binge drank” (5+ alcoholic drinks in one session) at least once over the previous 30 days

o Nearly 1/3 of those who have ever used alcohol have blacked out at least once (28%)

o Most were only 13-14 years old when they first tried drinking alcohol

As adults in Santa Monica — from parents, to teachers, to business owners, and beyond – we should be disappointed by these numbers.

We often view drinking and driving as the biggest danger associated with underage drinking. We think when adults “take away the keys,” they somehow create a safer environment for youth to drink. This simply isn’t true. Alcohol’s threat to young people extends well beyond car crashes.

Research shows that adolescents are far more susceptible to alcohol and need only to drink half as much as adults to suffer the same effects. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), youth who drink alcohol are more likely to experience unintentional injuries such as burns, falls, and drowning, and memory problems, and have a higher risk for unplanned or unwanted sexual activity, memory disruptions, depression suicidal thoughts, and violence.

Additionally, several studies show alcohol can cause changes in the structure and function in the developing adolescent brain. The prefrontal cortex – the region of the brain responsible for things like planning, idea creation, decision-making and self-control, undergoes the most change in adolescent years. Premature drinking can significantly impact this part of the brain, including the formation of adult personality and behavior.

As adults, it is our responsibility to protect our youth from the harms of underage drinking. We must be proactive in preventing problems before they arise, and understand how our behaviors as adults can influence a teen’s decision to drink.

Educating ourselves and our children is certainly important, but will only take us so far in addressing this complex problem. I believe we need to take a greater step and create changes at the community level. That means heightening our standards. It also means implementing strategies – even Social Host ordinances, like so many other communities have done – that reduce the incidence of house parties, which are consistently places of high risk for teens and alcohol.

Underage drinking is a complex problem requiring a complex set of solutions; there’s no excuse for apathy. We need to be willing to take the steps necessary to make it happen.

Trisha Roth has worked on the Westside as a pediatrician with a central focus on addiction and recovery for over 21 years. She is the former Chair of Substance Abuse for the American Academy of Pediatrics Chapter 2 of California.

– By Trisha Roth, MD, FAAP