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Underage drinkers often get free alcohol from adults, federal study finds

By Vikki Ortiz, Bonnie Miller Rubin and Lisa Black | Chicago Tribune reporters
12:02 AM CDT, June 26, 2008

Despite stricter laws and stern warnings that "we card hard," millions of teenagers are still getting their hands on alcohol. And they're often getting it for free from people who should know better: adults of legal drinking age.

A four-year federal survey being released Thursday found that about 40 percent of drinkers ages 12 to 20 had obtained free alcohol in the previous 30 days from people over 21.

The results of the study did not surprise local parents, teens and social service providers, who said attitudes on underage drinking are hard to change.

Teens "are getting it from their own homes," said Nanci Radford, youth program coordinator for the Northern Illinois Council on Alcohol and Substance Abuse. "They get it from older brothers and sisters, cousins, older relatives, or they just get it from friends."

"People don't see it as criminal," said Brenda Nelson, a social worker at Barrington High School. Even so, she added, "The consequences can be so drastic."

The issue has particular resonance in the Chicago area, where two Deerfield parents were convicted last year of allowing an underage drinking party at their home that was blamed for an auto crash that killed two teens.

A month after the convictions, Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed a law that allowed for felony charges if parents knowingly let underage drinking occur and someone is hurt or killed as a result.

Wide-ranging report

The study by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration was based on responses of 158,000 young Americans from 2002 to 2006.

In the last year of the study, about 28 percent of those ages 12 to 20 said they had consumed alcohol in the previous 30 days. Based on that response, the study found there are about 10.8 million underage drinkers.

Of those who said they drank, a quarter reported getting alcohol from an adult who was not related to them; 1 in 12 said they got it from an adult family member other than a parent or guardian; and about 1 in 16 said they got it from a parent.

Kelly Breneisen of Antioch, the mother of three teens, said she was surprised that even more children didn't report getting booze from a family member.

"You never hear a story about a kid standing outside a liquor store, paying someone to buy them beer. They're too aware; they know they'll get into trouble," she said. "The stories are usually at home, in someone's basement."

When her children's friends share stories about partying, it's not easy to know what to do, she said.

"Do I tell their parents? Or should I just talk to them?" she said. "If you become the mom who calls home all the time, you're going to lose their trust."

Other parents echoed the confusion over how to confront the problem.

Last year, in the wake of the Deerfield crash that killed Ross Trace and Danny Bell, both 18, Vicki Ettelson and other parents in the community started Positive Adult Responsibility Eliminates Negative Teenage Situations, or PARENTS, a group aimed at stopping underage drinking. But the coalition disbanded after a year when parents had trouble agreeing on even basic issues.

"Some parents think it is a rite-of-passage, 'I lived through this,' sowing-your-wild-oats kind of thing," said Ettelson. "One parent's idea of supervision is definitely not another parent's idea of monitoring."

About 53 percent of those who said they drank were at another person's home when they last consumed alcohol, 30 percent were in their own home and only 9 percent were at a restaurant, bar or club, according to the survey.

Beliefs reinforced

Some young people said the study reinforced what was obvious to them. For many of their peers, drinking is normal. Many adults are easy to fool, the teens say, and some parents think it's safer to drink at someone's home rather than be drunk in a car.

Although she said she doesn't drink, Amanda Saccomanno, 18, guessed that 50 percent of the students at her high school did. Many get alcohol from older friends.

"If they are 21, they just want to drink, and they want to drink in groups," the Schaumburg resident said, "so if they have underage friends, they'll do what they can just to get someone else to drink."

Tribune reporter Mary Ann Fergus contributed to this report, which was written by Tribune reporter Andrew L. Wang.

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