CHATHAM, NJ - A recent New Jersey study found in the last 30 days by the time they reach eighth grade 50 percent of students have had a drink and 20 percent have been drunk.

In the last 30 days 42 percent of high schoolers have done some drinking and 24 percent have been engaged in binge drinking.

Those between the ages of 12 and 20 consume 11 percent of the alcohol in the United States.

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Forty per cent of all fatal alcohol-related car crashes involve teenagers, and eight teenagers die every day in alcohol-related crashes.

These are just some of the frightening statistics on underage drinking presented Wednesday by the four members of a panel appearing at Chatham High School and sponsored by the Municipal Alliance Committee of the Chathams.

Heidi Brotzman of Morris County Prevention is Key served as the moderator of the discussion.

On the panel were:

  • Peter N. Gilbreth, an attorney now in private practice who is a former Morris County assistant prosecutor and former municipal prosecutor in Mendham and Madison.
  • Ethan Weiner of the pediatric emergency medicine department at the Goryeb Children’s Hospital of Morristown Memorial Hospital.
  • Michael Shugrue, a licensed clinical social worker specializing in treating children, adolescents and their families and a member of Project Community Pride.

Prior to introducing the panel members, Brotzman noted her group is involved in reaching out to students at all age levels. She pointed to the institution of the “New Social Engine”, which targets college students attending institutions throughout Morris County in an effort to stem the tide of underage drinking.

She noted some recent negative developments that do not bode well in the fight against underage drinking:

  • Reese sandals, which are sold online and in many New Jersey shore communities, contain a bottle opener and an insert where a shot of liquor can be carried. Brotzman said when she confront the owner of one of the shops carrying the sandals he could not assure her he had verified the age of every person purchasing the footwear.
  • After the last Superbowl elementary school children were shown a number of images, including characters from children’s entertainment and symbols of alcohol companies, such as the Budweiser frog and a Clydesdale horse, and more of them were able to identify the Budweiser symbols than the other images.
  • A recent study proved that, if children begin drinking alcohol before age 15 they are more likely to become addicted than if they begin drinking after the legal age of 21.

Gilbreth pointed out the serious legal consequences of drinking and driving, particularly for those under 21.

At a minimum, he said, a driving while intoxicated charge yields a 30-to-90-day loss of the offender’s driver’s license.

Unlike with other offenses, where a police officer has the discretion to issue a warning, there is not discretion when an underage drinker is charged with DWI because of the potential for accidents while drinking and driving.

Also, if a person under 21 is pulled over and presents a phony license that could have been used to illegally purchase alcohol this is a crime that can be prosecuted at the county level and the criminal record that results could be a hindrance when the person seeks college admission.

In addition, use of phony identification could yield a charge of use of fraudulent government documents—a very serious offense, according to Gilbreth, in the post-911 world because those who destroyed the World Trade Center and were involved in the other attacks on September 11, 2001 used fake driver’s licenses to obtain other credentials.

He added although parents can legally allow their own children to drink in their home if any of the friends of their children drink there the parents could face criminal charges.

The moderator noted, however, that, in New Jersey, teenagers at a party who call emergency services to aid a friend who is in medical distress due to drinking alcohol will not be criminally charged.

She added, however, there are a number of provisions to the law and both parents and children should study it carefully.

In reviewing the medical consequences of premature alcohol use, Weiner said the part of the brain involved with self-regulation and our ability to moderate internal stress and execute the functioning of goal-directed behavior is not fully developed in teens and alcohol delays this development further.

At the same time, he added, early use of alcohol speeds up development of the limbic system that encourages reckless behavior.

This behavior, the doctor said, can lead to such activities as unregulated and often unwilling sexual activity. Alcohol use, he added, is the number one cause of rape among teenagers.

Weiner also noted liver damage can be noted after only a moderate consumption of alcohol and even a low level of alcohol consumption can lead to learning impairments.

At the same time, he said, physicians seeking to promote teen health in areas of mental health, sexually-transmitted diseases, pregnancy and abuse and use of drugs and alcohol need parents to allow them to protect the confidentiality of teenage patients.

This means parents should not make unreasonable demands for results of blood alcohol and other medical tests.

Responding to an audience question, the doctor said he could not give a threshold where a teen who had been drinking was safe from harm because the drinking caused him or her to pass out.

Consuming large amounts of alcohol over time is dangerous no matter what the circumstances, he noted, and the body’s reaction to it depends on individual physiology.

Physicians also take into account the person’s ability to regulate his or her breathing and their gag reflex, Weiner said.

Shugrue’s remarks centered on helping parents to empower children to say no to alcohol.

He noted while only 19% of children think parents are qualified to judge which music they should listen to and only 26% think their parents are authorities on which clothes they should wear, 80% look to their parents for advice on the use of alcohol.

Of the various types of parenting, Shugrue said, the most effective is authoritative, which gives a balance of reasonable control with warmth and responsiveness.

Children raised under this model, he noted, have a better image of themselves and their bodies, are more successful academically and learn better approaches to problem solving.

In addition, teenagers with parents who model responsible consumption of alcohol are less likely to drink at a young age and less likely to practice binge drinking.

He said parents should not prevent their children from going to parties, except where they know alcohol will be abused, but should given them the tools they need “to go to a party and not use.”

When teenagers say they will be going to college where parents will have little control over their use of alcohol, the social worker said, the parents should provide their children with the right “verbiage” they need to avoid becoming involved in alcohol abuse.

He also said allowing a teen to have a taste of champagne on New Year’s Eve or some wine with a family dinner was a far cry from leaving teens at home with a refrigerator filled with alcohol.

Parents should be a “final voice” for their children, he added, validating their children’s feelings, even when they disagree with their behavior, being gentle but firm at the same time.

Parents should ask questions, not just lecture; promote dialogue and not one-way conversation and forge connections with their teens as the most important way of fighting against the adoption of alcohol use.

In addition to being open and listening, he said, parents should educate themselves on the topic of premature alcohol use by consulting legitimate sources such as the Web MD website.

Parents provide their children with many privileges, the social worker noted, but they should also help their children understand the relationship between responsible behavior and those privileges.