My Turn: Teen drinking remains a complicated problem

Posted: Monday, February 24, 2003

A recent article in the Empire indicated more than half of Juneau's liquor stores were willing to sell alcohol to a young looking patron without checking for age. This lack of concern has historical basis and has contributed to easy access to alcohol by Juneau teens. For many years Juneau had no Alcoholic Beverage Control officer stationed in our city. Local police placed a low priority on enforcing the laws that prohibit selling alcohol to teen or intoxicated individuals despite $62,000 in state funding for that purpose. In 1999, a state officer was assigned to Juneau and promptly cited 13 liquor stores and bars for selling to underage patrons.

The recent Empire article shows that liquor stores are still very lax in there self-monitoring of sales. Perhaps motive or greed overrides the need for caution or concern for our youth. Easy access contributes to a host of problems for teens in our town. In a survey done a few years ago, 80 percent of high school students and 43 percent of seventh and eighth graders had tried alcohol. Even more definitively, 40 percent of high school students said they had consumed alcohol within the last 30 days. Police records confirm the problem. In 2001 there were more "minor consuming" citations issued by JPD than there were kids graduating from JDHS. Sadly, Juneau has one of the highest rates of teen deaths due to alcohol-related crashes. We have lost 11 young people over the last 13 years to alcohol-related crashes.

This rate of fatalities and our high consumption of alcohol make us one of the highest risk areas of the United States. The impact of heavy drinking on the state and city budgets is astounding. Nearly all the misdemeanors and 65 to 70 percent of felonies are alcohol-related in our area. The liquor store compliance checks, outlined recently in a local news story, was done by a citizens group. Real compliance checks should be done by the local police and citations issued if necessary. ABC has one officer covering an area from Cordova to Metlakatla and can't give Juneau enough attention.

Of course teens do not get all their alcohol from liquor stores and bars. Many find easy access in their own home or get an adult to buy it for them. The Legislature recently responded to this situation by increasing the fines up to $10,000 for an adult purchase for teens. The adult will be held liable if the drinking teen is injured or injures another.

The other piece to this problem is the teen that buys alcohol. It is critically important the teen that chooses to drink be given appropriate consequences in court and at home. All too often Juneau parents take teen drinking lightly. Parental attitude and modeling of inappropriate drinking behavior only diminishes attempts to keep kids safe. Last year the Legislature addressed this issue as well. It is now illegal for a teen to attempt to buy alcohol or use false identification. Alcohol establishments can bring civil action against the individual teen and their family and collect up to $1,000. Bars can attach a teen's PFD if the teen attempts to enter their establishment. One popular bar in Anchorage collected over $20,000 last year. A home that models alcohol abuse or minimizes alcohol's impact on behavior is setting a teen up for much pain. The law is not only tougher on teens but most schools have imposed a no nonsense approach as well.

The Juneau School District has imposed a zero tolerance policy and regularly enforces this policy. Possess drugs or drink alcohol on or near campus and the police are called.

Our community has come a long way in cutting through the denial of Alaska's major health and social problem. We now need licensed establishments to join us and stop the denial. Let's not lose another 11 teens this decade because of easy access to alcohol.

• Matt Felix of Juneau has worked in the drug and alcohol treatment field for more than 30 years.



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