EL PASO — Whether they’re sneaking over the border to party, using fake IDs or hanging at a friend’s house, when minors drink they often go too far.
“There are a lot of people who, unfortunately, they get into a driving accident. They get into a fight. They may end up pregnant. Or they may suffer academically because they were engaging in unhealthy drinking behaviors,” said Jana Renner, lead program director for Shift Positive, a new initiative aimed at curbing underage drinking in El Paso, Juarez and southern New Mexico.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 90 percent of all underage drinking is in the form of binge drinking. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as episodes of heavy drinking where men consume five or more alcoholic beverages and women consume 4 or more in about a two-hour period.
Shift Positive is a partnership of the Paso Del Norte Health Foundation, the YMCA and the University of Texas at EL Paso to develop evidence-based strategies to reduce underage binge drinking. Intervention strategies can include improved screening for signs of alcohol abuse in youth, increasing penalties for providing minors alcohol and raising taxes on alcohol.
The initiative is pushing for tougher local enforcement efforts to not just cite a minor in possession of alcohol, but to also hold adults accountable if they allow underage drinking to happen at their home. Under Texas law, minors caught drinking for the first time can face a fine of up to $500, lose their driver’s license for 180 days and be required to do community service. Adults who provide alcohol to a minor can be fined up to $4,000 and jailed for up to a year.
“We’d like to get a message out there pretty clearly that this is not what we want for our youth. We want to keep our youth safe and one way to do that is to hold both the youth and the adults accountable for hosting those parties,” Mata said.
Screening and brief intervention is also being used on the UTEP campus and other places like pharmacies, where participants are asked to answer questions about their drinking patterns and referred to further care if needed.
“If you know that a certain amount of people are drinking at levels to put them at risk, the more opportunities you have to talk to them about it the better,” Mata said.
Taking a page from the campaign against tobacco use among minors is a strategy to make buying alcohol more expensive.
“When it costs more people drink less, especially young drinkers,” Mata said, ” Although that’s not one of our main activities, there are campaigns in Texas and New Mexico to raise taxes on alcohol.”
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, underage drinking risks include:
Death – 4,358 people under age 21 die each year from alcohol-related car crashes, homicides, suicides, alcohol poisoning, and other injuries such as falls, burns, and drowning.
Serious injuries – More than 190,000 people under age 21 visited an emergency room for alcohol-related injuries in 2008 alone.
Impaired judgment – Drinking can cause kids to make poor decisions, which can then result in risky behavior like drinking and driving, sexual activity, or violence.
Increased risk for physical and sexual assault – Youth who drink are more likely to carry out or be the victim of a physical or sexual assault.
Brain development problems – Research shows that brain development continues well into a person’s twenties. Alcohol can affect this development, and contribute to a range of problems.
The Shift Positive initiative is hoping to raise community awareness and encourage a larger discussion to help young people make healthier choices.
“If we can change the way of thinking – that you can’t go to a party, if you’re a young person, that’s fun without alcohol – we’d like to see that.”