Lynchburg’s Teen Drinking Problem

Feb 16, 2012 No Comments by

Alcohol use lands Lynchburg-area youth in ER; Prevention elusive

By: AMY TRENT | Lynchburg News and Advance

More than 50 youths under the age of 21, some as young as 11 years old, were admitted to Lynchburg General Hospital’s emergency room in 2011 because of alcohol use.

The majority were diagnosed with “acute alcohol intoxication,” said Dr. Chris Thomson of Centra, meaning that they had consumed more alcohol than their body could metabolize. Some were admitted with alcohol poisoning — which comes on after drinking too much, too fast — and needed critical care, said Thomson. Alcohol poisoning can lead to coma and, rarely, death.

While blood alcohol concentration levels (BAC) varied a great deal because they are affected by both an individual’s weight and ability to metabolize alcohol, the typical BAC was between 100 and 300 milligrams per deciliter. That means that the youths were admitted with anywhere from .1 to .3 percent of their blood, by volume, comprised of alcohol, according to Thomson. In Virginia, anyone over .08 is considered legally drunk.

At 100 milligrams per deciliter a person will begin to slur their speech, lose control of fine motor skills, laugh inappropriately and become emotionally unstable and confused.

The latest numbers out of the ER do not surprise intervention specialists or even some parents.

“Disappointing, disheartening, but not necessarily surprising,” said Stephanie Martin, a program manager for Central Virginia Community Services, which provides substance abuse prevention to about 600 Lynchburg City School students annually.

One in three teens in Lynchburg City Schools report that they have consumed alcohol by ninth grade, according to a behavioral survey done by the division every four years. That is roughly in line with the national average of 31 percent.  Even some sixth-graders admit to having consumed alcohol, the survey shows.

“The general trend is to drink to get drunk,” said Martin. “They are drinking as much as they can in a short period of time.”

“These kids are out of control and it’s not so much the drugs, it’s the alcohol,” said Leslie Kozera, a Lynchburg parent who has seen firsthand what has happened to friends and family.

“I have to be able to apologize and say, ‘I was wrong.’ Yeah, he did the drinking, but I enabled it. I enabled my son’s behavior,” said Kozera. She blames herself for not being more engaged in her son’s life and knowing what was going on.

As a result, Kozera and a small group of parents have banded together to make it clear to teens and their friends that underage alcohol consumption is illegal. Now, these parents open their homes to the teens as gathering spots, but keep a close eye on their activities and maintain constant contact with one another.

Kozera hopes to start with this small group of like-minded parents and “bleed it out from there.” Although other parents in the group did not respond to interview requests, one parent did write via email that she is thankful the issue is being addressed.

“There are a lot of people who are going to be angry with me for talking about this. They think that if they don’t talk about it, it’ll go away,” said Kozera.

Hospital and police records confirm that teen drinking is not going away.

According to the Lynchburg Police Department, there were 114 underage alcohol possession arrests in 2010, up from 92 in 2009, 89 in 2008 and 96 in 2007. Numbers for January through October of 2011 show 83 such incidents.

Most involved youths between the ages of 16 and 20, said Captain Ryan Zuidema.

Inside the ER, the youths who haven’t suffered trauma requiring more invasive care are hydrated and observed until they can be transferred home, or sometimes, to jail.

The most common problems kids face as a result of their drinking — beside legal trouble, embarrassment, punishment and poor school performance — is physical injury. In 2010, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles reported that 543 teens between the ages of 15 and 19 were injured in alcohol-related crashes and another 22 teens between 15 and 19 were killed.

Part of the problem, said Steve Nielsen, a licensed clinical psychologist and counseling manager with Centra, is that “we’ve created this perception that alcohol is a safe drug,” and drinking has become socially acceptable. Most youths see alcohol use daily in the media and have ready access to it in their homes.

National campaigns to prevent teens from smoking using drugs have been successful, said Nielson, but national campaigns do not target teen alcohol use in the same way.

“We haven’t done as effective a job educating teens about the dangers of alcohol use,” said Nielsen. “We really haven’t sat down with kids and said, ‘Alcohol is just as dangerous as drugs.’”

Youths “gravitate toward what is more socially acceptable,” said Nielsen, adding that fitting in and peer pressure compound the problem.

When it comes to the media, said Nielsen, teens see drinking in movies and television and actors suffering no ill effects. It adds to the misconception that alcohol consumption cannot harm them. He added that past decades of children watched television shows where children turned to their parents or other adults for guidance. Compare “Leave it to Beaver” to “Friends,” where individuals count on their peers, rather than parents, for advice and guidance. This, said Nielsen, reinforces the importance of peers.

The National Institute of Health reports that, for a child, having friends who drink alcohol is a strong predictor of their future drinking levels. And youths who start drinking before the age of 15 are four times more likely than those who start drinking legally at age 21 to become alcoholics as adults, according to the National Institute of Health.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the number of kids who drink more than just a few sips of alcohol increases dramatically as they age, starting with seven percent of 12-year-olds and rising to almost 70 percent of 18-year-olds. Binge-drinking incidents, which are common, increase as children age, according to the agency.

The experimentation ages are typically age 13 to 15, but children as young as 11 are experimenting with alcohol, said Nielsen.

Experts say one reason is that it is easily accessible. Kozera believes there are businesses in town that do not thoroughly check IDs and will sell to underage buyers; Nielsen said youths frequently find alcohol in their own homes or the homes of friends.

A study commissioned by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration confirms that underage drinkers have little difficulty accessing alcohol, either purchasing it themselves or getting it through a friend or family member.

Zuidema said, “the most common thing we see is them getting it from an older friend or an older family member.” Local stores that sell to underage buyers can be reported to the police and Virginia’s Alcoholic Beverage Control. According to the agency, kids caught with a fake ID, whether they are using it or not, may face a conviction that will stay on their permanent record, affecting college admissions and job opportunities.

Scare tactics, such as fake car wrecks, designed to motivate teens to not use alcohol do little as far as prevention. The brain, said Nielsen, can only be in fear for a limited amount of time and so the death of a friend or a car wreck can have minimal long-term impact.

What has been proven to work with kids is prevention, said Nielsen. It’s not enough to just say, “Don’t do drugs”; parents have to find out what their children excel at and accentuate those strengths so children know what makes them valuable, he said.

“If we do the work up front,” he said, “it’s less likely that we’re going to be cleaning up the mess later on.”

Did you know?

  • Youths who start drinking before age 15 are four times more likely than those who start drinking legally at age 21 to become alcoholics as adults. (National Institute of Health)
  • Those who allow, aid or abet underage persons to possess or consume alcohol can face up to one year in jail and/or a $2,500 fine. (Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control)
  • Those under the age of 21 who use false identification in an attempt to purchase alcohol are fined at least $500 or required to perform at least 50 hours of community service, face up to 12 months in jail and face mandatory drivers license suspension for 6 to 12 months. (Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles)
  • Parents who provide or allow alcohol use in their home (or elsewhere) can be held responsible if someone, as a result of alcohol use, gets into a fight and hurts someone, falls and hurts themselves or someone else, sexually assaults someone, damages property, dies from drinking too much or injures or kills someone while driving after leaving the party. Under Virginia law parents who provide alcohol can be sued for damages and face criminal charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. — Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control.
  • “If you are convicted of driving after illegally consuming alcohol and were found to have a BAC of 0.02 and less than 0.08, the court penalty will include a suspension of your driving privilege for one year from the date of conviction, and a minimum mandatory fine of $500, or the requirement that you complete at least 50 hours of community service.” – Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.
  • Those who provide or sell alcoholic beverages to persons under age 21 are subject to a fine up to $2,500, 12 months in jail and mandatory suspension of their driver’s license for up to one year. These same penalties apply if you assist someone under age 21 obtain or purchase alcohol. – Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.
  • “If you’re under age 21 and you purchase, possess and/or consume alcohol, you face a fine ranging from $500 to $2,500, up to 12 months in jail and mandatory suspension of your driver’s license for at least six months but not more than one year.” – Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.


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(the above article was originally published at 
The Change Group Blog

About the author

Ryan Thomas Neace is the co-founder and managing director of The Change Group, and holds a Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy. He brings nearly 10 years of mental health experience to The Change Group. He is also an official blogger for the American Counseling Association.
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