Underage drinking is like a many-headed hydra — a problem with many sources and many consequences.

Corey Harp drank his first sip of beer when he was about 15 years old.

It was during a party at a friend’s house while the parents were out of town, the University of Central Oklahoma senior said. Socially, Harp hung out with a pretty typical crowd. Today, at a legal age, he is an occasional drinker.

The legal drinking age in Oklahoma is 21. But Edmond teens, like teens elsewhere, are still getting alcohol from a variety of places and consuming it in increasing numbers, said Pat Nichols, director of the Edmond chapter of Parents Helping Parents, a resource for parents dealing with children using alcohol or other drugs.

Data on Edmond high school students reveals a significant increase in alcohol consumption from when they are ninth-graders to when they are seniors.

According to a 2002 survey of Edmond high school students posted at www.parentshelpingparents.info, 23 percent of ninth-graders said they were episodic heavy drinkers (five or more drinks).

Nearly 40 percent of seniors said they were episodic heavy drinkers, about a 20 percent increase.

Nichols said there is plenty of blame for the problem to go around. Parents need to be educated about the issue, and children must be held accountable, he said.

“We’re all enablers,” he said. “We want children to be happy.”

In our society, consuming alcohol is commonplace, Nichols said.

“Our culture embraces alcohol as a rite of passage, so some parents don’t understand what they’ve done,” he said.

Underage drinking initiative

When discussing alcohol with children, parents should use “tough love,” emphasizing love first, Nichols said.

Alcohol use is a serious problem linked to other behaviors, like tobacco use, sexual behavior and drug use, Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson said.

Twenty-two percent of Edmond ninth-graders said they had sexual behavior, the survey showed. For seniors, that number was at 48 percent, an increase of more than 20 percentage points.

While overall youth alcohol consumption has declined in the past 20 years, it remains unacceptably high, Edmondson said.

Steps are being taken to combat the problem.

Edmondson recently announ-ced an initiative to fight underage drinking in Oklahoma.

The initiative features a new, innovative program, which recognizes that the key to stopping underage drinking is communication early and often between parents and children.

“Ask, Listen, Learn: Kids and Alcohol Don’t Mix” was developed by The Century Council and Nickelodeon. The Oklahoma AG’s office is distributing program materials to middle school principals across the state.

Simultaneous efforts provide both kids and parents with information and strategies to help jump-start the conversation about the dangers of underage drinking.

Edmondson said most kids, as the statistics show, try alcohol for the first time before age 12.

In fact, the conversation needs to begin earlier than most people think, as early as age 9, he said.

Capitol idea

During the last legislative session, Sen. Jeff Rabon, D-Hugo, and Rep. Thad Balkman, R-Norman, co-authored Senate Bill 66, which would have increased the penalties for minors in possession of 3.2 beer and increase penalties for suppliers.

It also would have protected businesses tricked by minors using fake ID’s to purchase 3.2 beer.

The House did not take action on the bill.

Existing state laws are not adequate, Rabon said. The bill would help save lives, he said.

Oklahoma law bans drown nights and happy hours for all other alcoholic beverages besides 3.2 beer. Balkman said a recent statistical study showed that beer is the drink of choice in most cases of heavy drinking, binge drinking, drunk driving and underage drinking.

Balkman said he will work to pass a tougher version of the ban during the 2006 legislative session.

Oklahoma also has placed restrictions on when teens can drive.

In communities like Edmond, individuals and groups have taken steps to combat underage drinking, but more needs to be done, Nichols said.

In Oklahoma, about 20 percent of graduating seniors have some sort of alcohol-related problem, Nichols said.

Other statistics are even more troublesome.

According to the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, in 2002, 15.8 percent of Oklahoma drivers causing alcohol-related crashes were under the age of 21. In 2003, 255 Oklahomans were killed in alcohol-related crashes.

Nichols said community leaders need to stop and ask themselves “What can we do better?”

For immediate help, the area has several treatment facilities.

Information on these facilities is available on the Parents Helping Parents Web site at www.parentshelpingparents.info.

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