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from the December 27, 2004 edition of Oregon's "The Register-Guard"

Law enforcement best way to deter underage drinking

By Tim Christie

The best way to reduce underage drinking is to make it harder for minors to get their hands on alcohol, a new study has found.
The researchers found the amount of law enforcement against underage purchases and the number of alcohol outlets where young people can buy alcohol are the biggest determinants for underage drinking, binge drinking and driving while impaired.

The study provides scientific confirmation for what has long been apparent, said Joel Grube, director of the Prevention Research Center in Berkeley, Calif., and one of the study' authors.

"Communities can reduce underage drinking by reducing the number of outlets that sell booze to kids and by increasing enforcement of minimum-age purchase laws," he said.

Grube collaborated on the study with researchers Clyde Dent and Anthony Biglan from the Oregon Research Institute in Eugene. Their findings were published in the December issue of the journal Preventive Medicine.

The study was based on Oregon Healthy Teens, an annual survey of adolescent health behaviors conducted by the state Department of Human Services. The survey asks students how often and how much they drink, when they began drinking, how often they've had alcohol-induced blackouts and similar questions.

The researchers analyzed responses from about 17,000 11th-graders in 93 communities taken in 2001 and 2002.

They found that in communities where it was easier for minors to buy alcohol, the level of alcohol use was higher and more alcohol-related problems existed. Stronger enforcement of minor-in-possession laws, meanwhile, was associated with lower levels in the frequency of alcohol use and in binge drinking.

Most Oregon minors - 70 percent - get their alcohol from friends, parents or other social sources. Thirty percent get it from convenience stores, supermarkets or other commercial sources.

Students who were able to buy from stores had higher levels of drinking, impaired driving or riding with an impaired driver. Students tended to drink and binge less in communities where they were more likely to be caught by police if they drank.

While underage drinking is sometimes viewed as a harmless rite of passage, it is associated with a host of serious problems, including injuries and deaths from drunken driving, unprotected and unwanted sex, and violence and vandalism, Grube said.

"Underage drinking is a very costly behavior for this country," he said.

The federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has estimated underage drinking costs the United States $53 billion a year, mainly through loss of life but also through property damage and other losses.

In Eugene, the police department sends out regular "party patrols" on weekend nights to crack down on minors in possession, spokeswoman Pam Olshanski said.

Citations for alcohol violations have increased in the past two years in Eugene. Officers cited 1,193 minors for alcohol violations in 2001 and 1,165 in 2002. Then, in 2003, alcohol violations involving minors increased 59 percent, to 1,850. To date this year, 1,885 minors have been cited for alcohol.

"We certainly have maintained a high visibility as it relates to parties that have the potential of going out of control, which often times does include minors consuming alcohol," Olshanski said.

The Oregon Liquor Control Commission is doing what it can to crack down on underage drinking, but clearly more needs to be done, spokesman Ken Palke said. This year, OLCC agents ran nearly 1,000 compliance checks on liquor-license holders, in which underage volunteers are sent into a store or bar to buy alcohol. Of those, 712 establishments made no sale, and 274 made sales for a 38 percent sales rate.

"We think that's way too high," he said.

Part of the reason may be that the OLCC has begun conducting random checks of license-holders, rather than targeted checks, he said. That means agents are checking establishments that don't necessarily cater to a younger crowd, and therefore "haven't been paying quite as close attention" to checking IDs as they should, he said.

Pamela Erickson, director of the Oregon Coalition to Reduce Underage Drinking and a former director of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, said the study "really adds a lot of weight to some of the policies we've been pursuing in Oregon."

"It adds a lot of credence to the notion that enforcing our laws really works," she said. "We're a state that has excellent (underage drinking) laws. They're aren't always well-enforced."

When Erickson took over at OLCC in 1996, underage drinking laws "were virtually unenforced," she said. One reason was a belief that education, not enforcement, was the answer, she said. The agency then began much more aggressive enforcement, she said.

But communities need to do more to curb underage drinking, she said. Kids are starting to drink at earlier ages, she said.

In the 2004 Oregon Healthy Teens survey, 28 percent of eighth-graders reported having a drink in the previous 30 days.

"I think it's now time for Oregon to look at maybe curtailing its habit of just giving a license to anyone who wants a license," she said.

Tim Christie can be reached at 338-2572 or tchristie@