A letter to the American public: How to reduce underage drinking in America

Parents, schools and law enforcement must work together to prevent young lives from being needlessly taken


This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning and action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations.

The article was created using the futures forecasting process of Command College and its outcomes. Managing the future means influencing it – creating, constraining and adapting to emerging trends and events in a way that optimizes the opportunities and minimizes the threats of relevance to the profession.

By Bradley D. Beach

On a hazy, cool morning while driving to school, a 17-year-old girl named Jane ran a stop sign and pulled out in front of a bus. Her SUV was immediately crushed on the driver’s side, and she died instantly. The door had to be pried open by emergency personnel to remove her lifeless body.

A rookie California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) agent was assigned to search the girl’s SUV. All that remained inside was blood on the seat, an empty alcohol bottle, a sales receipt from a liquor store, a fraudulent ID, and her left brown knee-high boot wedged between the wheel well and floorboard.

Underage drinking contributes to costly health, social and economic problems, including suicide, death from motor vehicle crashes and violence-related injuries.
Underage drinking contributes to costly health, social and economic problems, including suicide, death from motor vehicle crashes and violence-related injuries. (Getty Images)

Seeing Jane’s blood and her boot made the agent swear on that day to make a difference during his career by tackling the challenge to reduce underage drinking in America.

The data regarding underage drinking 

The agent knew that underage drinking contributes to costly health, social and economic problems, including suicide, death from motor vehicle crashes and violence-related injuries.

In 2017, 17% of high school students reported riding in a car driven by someone who had been drinking alcohol. In the same year, 1,844 young drivers ages 15-20 years were killed. [1] Of those, 440 of the young drivers had alcohol in their systems, and 362 had a blood alcohol content above the legal limit for those who are legally allowed to drink alcohol. [1]

On average, traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for teens, and alcohol is a factor in the deaths of approximately 4,300 people under 21 in the United States per year. [2]

He also learned that during the recent COVID pandemic, many children were sent home to attend virtual classes. This isolation led to increased consumption of alcohol, particularly among persons with anxiety and depression. [3] While at home, they often had easy access to nicotine, alcohol and drugs resulting in an increase in underage substance abuse. [4]

Did Jane’s parents know she was drinking alcohol?

The agent also explored the role parents play to prevent underage drinking. He found that most parents he talked to didn’t have discussions about the dangers of alcohol with their children. Only 18% of parents say they have extensively talked to their children about the dangers of alcohol. [5] They could limit or prevent teenage alcohol use by role-modeling safe drinking habits and talking about safe alcohol use. [6]

Alcohol is most frequently used by high school seniors and boys usually use alcohol for the first time at age 11 and girls at age 13. [7] Over the past 30 years, parental influence on children’s decision not to drink alcohol has increased from 55% in 1991 to 65% in 2021. [5] Research shows that when conversations go up, underage drinking goes down. [8]

If her parents had talked to her about the dangers of alcohol use, Jane’s death might have been prevented. Beyond parental involvement, the agent wanted to explore the other factors that enabled Jane to drink, drive and then tragically die.

How did she get the fake ID?

The agent’s first task was to figure out how Jane got the fake ID.

Searching the term “How to purchase a fraudulent identification” on the Internet resulted in 80 million hits in .76 seconds. He found through countless interviews on the job that many youths are able to purchase fake IDs online from China. The minor submits a passport-style photo and pays on average between $100-$200, receiving one or two IDs shortly thereafter. [9] They are easy to obtain, look authentic and allow minors to easily access alcohol. [10]

False IDs can lead to heavy drinking, and the toll on society can cost industry, government and the U.S. taxpayer an estimated $249 billion each year, according to a report from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. [11]

If Jane had been prevented from purchasing her fraudulent ID, she would not have been able to purchase alcohol on that fateful day.

Could education about drinking and driving have prevented the accident? 

Next, the agent wondered if more early education would prevent minors from drinking alcohol. In most of the schools he visited, he found that K-12 curriculum and educational instruction about the dangers of alcohol is limited and usually only mentioned during Red Ribbon Week. Instead, children receive their understanding of substance use through social media and movies, where celebrities are often pictured drinking alcohol.

Children need to know that underage drinking can lead to academic problems in school, legal problems, physical and sexual assaults, unwanted pregnancies, suicides, vehicle crashes, abuse of other drugs, and lifelong impacts on brain development. [1]

If Jane had received K-12 educational instruction on the dangers of alcohol use, maybe she would be alive today.  

Current prevention programs to address underage drinking 

Beyond parental involvement, eliminating access to fake IDs and implementing school-based programs to reduce the frequency of substance use by teens, there are other efforts in place today with similar goals.

Many current youth prevention coalitions across the nation, funded by county, state, or federal tax dollars, attempt to reduce underage drinking. [7] The main problem is that when funding dries up, the programs are shut down, and they often only make a temporary impact. However, these coalitions have developed many great programs that attempt to prevent underage drinking.

Traditional efforts to reduce underage drinking have focused solely on early education and prevention efforts. They simply try to convince youth not to drink. Research shows that model has only been marginally effective. [7] "Reducing Underage Drinking Through Coalitions" has created a new approach focusing on how the social environment encourages underage drinking. Through a $10.2 million initiative, 12 coalitions of youth, business, civic organizations, government agencies, the religious community, and other leaders are identifying environmental factors that contribute to underage drinking and work together to create positive changes. [7]

The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) lists over 200 evidence-based prevention programs, including the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program. Evidence has shown, however, that DARE was ineffective in the long term. [12] DARE has been replaced with the “keepin’ it REAL” (Refuse, Explain, Avoid and Leave) program, selected by DARE’s scientific advisory board as a successor to DARE in schools. It is not an anti-drug program; instead, it teaches students to be honest, safe and responsible.

A study of 6,000 students showed that those who attended the program sampled substances less than those in the control group. [12] And a subset of the survey of 1,300 students who were already using alcohol or drugs reduced substance use at a rate of 72% higher than the control group. Keeping it REAL is based on science and seems to be making a difference. [12]

All prevention programs across the country should be studied with scientific data to determine which ones are the most successful. ABC could then help prevention groups to implement the best practices statewide to reduce underage drinking. 

Future solutions to better prevent underage drinking

To reduce underage drinking and to dramatically reduce the number of deaths, arrests and negative social outcomes from alcohol use, there are four areas to direct effort and resources:

1. Encourage more parental involvement with children regarding the dangers of underage drinking

Parents have a major impact on the decisions children make. They need to clearly communicate to their children that they do not approve of underage drinking and that it is against the law to drink alcohol under the age of 21. Parents who are involved with their children will be more in tune with what they are doing and can help prevent underage drinking. Research shows that when conversations go up, underage drinking goes down. [8]

One great idea is a “Safe Home” pledge where parents complete a form with their children and discuss their beliefs about underage drinking. As part of this pledge, parents agree to set guidelines, not to allow underage youth to drink alcoholic beverages, be present at all pre-teen and teenage parties held in their homes to ensure that no drugs, alcohol or tobacco are present, and encourage future drug and alcohol-free activities for underage youth and spread the message to family and friends. [13] Parents would agree to secure alcohol in the house, so their children don’t have access to it during parties. They would also monitor their children’s lives better and talk to them often about what they are going through. It’s also important for parents to know who their children’s friends are, as hanging around with the wrong crowd can be dangerous.

Teenagers face enormous peer pressure, and many youths drink alcohol at parties with friends. Peer pressure from one’s own age group to engage in certain activities is a major factor in the development of risk-taking behaviors, such as alcohol use. [14] California ABC could be instrumental in helping to get the safe home pledge into the hands of every child in the State of California and across the country.

2. Create a FIT (Fraudulent Identification Taskforce) to combat fake IDs

To eliminate the ease of purchasing fraudulent IDs by minors, California ABC is exploring the creation of a Fraudulent Identification Task Force (FIT). The Task Force would be comprised of California ABC, FBI, Customs and Border Patrol and ABCs from other states. They would investigate the sites, purchase false IDs undercover, and eventually meet with Google, Bing and other search engine sites to determine how to remove certain websites on their platforms. The Task Force would present evidence of the crimes being committed and tell stories of all the minors dying in car crashes after using false IDs to purchase alcohol. The search engine executives would hopefully want to be part of the solution. 

If the partnership is successful, it would be significantly more difficult for minors to purchase fraudulent IDs in this country and, therefore, be more difficult to purchase alcohol. 

3. Implement a K-12 curriculum about underage drinking for use in public schools

The third way to prevent underage drinking is through education. A K-12 curriculum regarding the dangers of drinking alcohol as a minor should be implemented in all schools. It would take legislation or implementation from the Department of Education, but the fight is worth it. Studies show that alcohol affects the human brain and that a brain is not fully developed well into the early adult years. [15] It is critical to get children educated about alcohol at an early age so they can make informed decisions before their brain is fully developed. Everfi, a leading education technology company, has created a no-cost underage drinking prevention education program for K-12 teachers, students, and districts. [16]

AlcoholEdu for high school takes a public health approach to alcohol education in schools and incorporates evidenced-based prevention methods to create meaningful results. [16] The course has five lesson plans, and it starts by assessing values and goals and investigating common social myths about drinking culture. The lessons discuss the media and external influences that play a large role in shaping people’s perceptions, alcohol’s effects on our brains and bodies, and how alcohol affects relationships with family members. Students then create an action plan of concrete steps to take moving forward. [16] This program is also used at the college level for incoming freshmen. According to an AlcoholEdu college testimonial from Rhonda Dinovo, Director of Substance Abuse Prevention at the University of South Carolina, their school appreciates the curriculum and the valuable data that comes from the student surveys. [16] 

4. Develop facial recognition software to prevent underage alcohol purchasing

A fourth solution is facial recognition software that could assist retail clerks to identify youthful appearing subjects attempting to buy alcohol. The software would be connected to the cash register and would pop up a warning if the computer software identified youthful appearing characteristics on the person attempting to get alcohol. The clerk would then be required to check ID to complete the transaction.

Additionally, the software could connect the facial recognition software to the DMV or another governmental database. This would completely identify the person attempting to buy alcohol but could involve people’s individual privacy rights. This software is used by Customs and TSA at airports, and it is very effective at identifying people who are on “no-fly” lists. [17]

The main problem is that it is very expensive, and it could create controversy among those who are concerned with their right to privacy. The costs could be funded by grants and partially paid for by retailers.

Conclusion

The ABC agent who responded to that horrible vehicle crash is now a seasoned veteran with many years on the job and can still clearly see Jane’s boot inside the mangled car. He has young daughters now and never wants to see another vibrant young life needlessly taken. The four ideas – increasing parental involvement, creating a fraudulent identification task force, implementing K-12 curriculum on alcohol prevention, and deploying facial recognition software at the point of sale are vital in the fight against underage drinking. Using this multi-prong approach, law enforcement, parents and schools could finally save lives and reduce underage drinking in America.

NEXT: The little boy and the drunk driver

References

1. SAMHSA. Facts on Underage Drinking. 

2. Harding FM. Underage Drinking: A Review of Trends and Prevention Strategies.

3. Capasso A. (April 2021.) Increased alcohol use during the COVID-19 pandemic:  The effect of mental health and age in cross-sectional sample of social media users in the U.S. Preventative Medicine, Volume 145.

4. Richter L. (2020.)The Effects of the COIVD-19 Pandemic on the Risk of Youth Substance Use. Journal of Adolescent Health. 

5. Hildreth E. Who is Talking to Our Kids about Underage Drinking. Responsibility.org.

6. Preventing or limiting teenage alcohol use. Raising Children.

7. Reducing Underage Drinking Through Coalitions. AlcoholPolicyMD.org.

8. Prevent Underage Drinking. Responsibility.org.

9. Fliegelman O. Made in China: Fake ID’s. The New York Times.

10. Bock M. Parent Guide: The Dangers and Legal Consequences of Fake IDs. Grown and Flown.  

11. Buddy T. Economic Impact of Alcohol Abuse in the US. Very Well Mind.

12. Nordrum A. The New D.A.R.E. programs, this one works. Scientific American.

13. Informed Families. Take the Safe Home Smart Parents Pledge.

14. Palmeri JM. (2011.) Peer Pressure and alcohol use amongst college students. Applied.Psychology Opus.

15. Just how does drinking affect the teenage brain. Mclean Hospital. 

16. AlcoholEdu – Underage Drinking PreventionEverfi. 

17. TSA launches cutting-edge passenger identification technology at LAX security checkpoints. TSA.


About the author

Bradley D. Beach is a supervising agent in Charge for the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, serving a large portion of Los Angeles County and has been employed there since 1999.  As a sworn peace officer, Beach is a background investigator, field training officer, internal affairs investigator, acting public information officer and long-time firearms instructor. He was also elected in 2020 and is a Governing Board Member, Trustee Area #4, for the ABC Unified School District which oversees 30 schools and 2,000 employees. 

Beach currently attends the University of San Diego and is working on his Master of Science degree in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership. Before that he attended San Diego State University and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice (Cum Laude) and a minor in Kinesiology.  He currently enjoys traveling and coaching his daughter’s softball team. 

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