Teen Drinking

Break up with your boyfriend?

Some girls these days might recuperate at a slumber party with vodka "Pink Drinks." They are 80-proof, and some contain caffeine and guarana to elevate mood. They are pink and pretty, and their packaging resembles a cosmetic bottle.

Vodka, the drink of choice among teenagers these days, is being expertly marketed on the Internet, as are drinking games that promise various levels of intoxicated oblivion.

Teenagers don't drink just to get drunk anymore, say prevention specialists at Keystone Substance Abuse Center. They seek extreme inebriation.

"It wasn't popular to the mainstream when we were in middle school," said Sam, a high school senior and one of six York County 17-year-olds who spoke with The Herald about current teen drinking trends. The Herald agreed not to use their full names because of their age.

"Now, it's mainstream," Sam continued. "You can go to any table at lunch, and they're talking about I did this or that."

Teen drinking among girls is rising rapidly, as are cases of alcohol poisoning among young people, according to Jane Alleva, community relations director at Keystone, the state's designated York County intervention and treatment agency.

"We know teenagers are drinking much more than they ever did before," Alleva said. "It's unprecedented. They play all of these drinking games, drinking five to seven shots in an hour."

The body requires one hour to break down the amount of alcohol contained in a beer or a shot glass, she points out.

Janet Martini, Keystone executive director, cited at least three situations in the last few months in which students engaging in heavy drinking were rushed to the emergency room with suspected alcohol poisoning.

"Teenagers are particularly vulnerable to alcohol poisoning," said Martini. "They are pulled into these binge-drinking situations as part of a dare or to be accepted by their peers. Often, these individuals end up in hospital emergency rooms getting their stomachs pumped, or even worse, dead of an alcohol overdose."

Teenagers who spoke with The Herald said one of the most popular local drinking games involves bouncing a nickel on a table. If the coin rolls off the table, the tosser must take a shot of vodka or tequila. If it doesn't, the tosser chooses who must chug. A similar game, called "beer pong," involves a ping pong ball and a mug of beer.

"The fun is seeing who will chug," one of the teens said.

The teens also referenced a game called "Body Shots," which requires drinking vodka or tequila from another's bellybutton.

"It seems like a lot of fun when you're drunk," said Jacqueline, 17.

Get a blast on the Internet

Alcohol companies are designing drinks for young people and advertising them on the Internet. The marketing message, translated, says "for sad and happy things, you need to get drunk as soon as possible," Alleva said.

Anyone can access the Web sites, although some require browsers to click a button promising they are 21.

"We believe there's been a lot of marketing to girls," Alleva added. "Our kids use the Internet and are savvy."

One retailer touts its pink vodka as "X-rated ... X-boyfriend drink ... Flirtini ... Tickled pink." A brand of tequila promises to "Make love last longer." They are accompanied by images of beautiful, sophisticated young people having a great, sensual time.

"Younger girls drink more because they want to be seen and get that older guy," said Stacy, 17.

For the guys, one brand shows a young man with two, beautiful, seductively clad girls. "Rum. All grown up," the ad says. One popular vodka site displays an animated character and a bottle whose lid resembles a baseball cap.

The containers and contents themselves resemble anything from a liter of ginger ale to a perfume bottle or can of iced tea.

The media, including television shows such as "Sex and the City" and "Grey's Anatomy," in which hospital interns and residents often solve romance problems with alcohol binges, also have made drinking seem "very trendy, very cool," Alleva said.

"They don't say that medical students can't party all night, get a hangover and pull a 24-hour shift or take a test," she said. "It takes the brain three days to recover from binge drinking."

A cool drink to camouflage

Teenagers favor vodka, not only because of the marketing, but because it is odorless, looks like water, can be replaced with water in the family liquor cabinet and can be mixed with palatable sweet, fruity drinks. One local teenager said a classmate regularly carried vodka to school in a water bottle, eventually passing out in class.

While some of the teen party liquor does originate from the family stock, the local teenagers said it's not difficult to find someone who either looks or is old enough to buy it. When the teens arrive at a party, they pay $5 to $10 at the door to drink all they want.

For-profit groups also have been holding drink-all-you-want parties in York County, Alleva said. They have been the target of recent raids by the York County Multijurisdictional Task Force, partially funded through a $98,000 state grant.

Teens these days have learned to appoint a designated driver when they are drinking, the teenagers said.

"A good 90 percent of the kids get drunk, and the designated driver sits in the corner," said Jacqueline.

"My friends call me to come and get them when they're drunk now," said Stacy. "I've lost a lot of friends because I don't go to them anymore."

But there are dangers beyond drunken driving. Teens say they also have seen friends tumbling down the stairs drunk at parties. Alleva cites teenagers who have fallen off of porches and balconies.

"Often when boys drink, there are fights and there are sexual assaults," Alleva added. "On the girls' side, they act a way they otherwise wouldn't have. There's a real correlation between teen drinking, teen suicide and teen pregnancy."

Two of the six teens who spoke with The Herald said they knew three girls who had become pregnant after having unprotected sex at a drinking party.

Teens often arrange to stay at a friend's house after the party, they said, and parents are clueless.

"Parents just really don't want to think their kids will do that," Jacqueline said.

Alleva agrees.

"Parents are more naive than the kids," she said, "and parents are the No. 1 prevention tool."

Everyone knows that teenagers sneak beer from the fridge and liquor from their parents' cabinets. But without concrete evidence, it is hard to get money to combat the problem.

Activists hope the results of a recent study of teen alcohol and drug use in the Rock Hill school district will give York County All on Board -- a coalition of parents, teachers and community leaders who joined together a few years ago to fight underage drinking and its funding agent, Keystone Substance Abuse Services, the extra oomph they need to get more grant money.

Keystone is applying for a five-year, $125,000-per-year federal grant, using the survey to show why York County needs the money. If Keystone wins the grant, similar surveys will be conducted in the rest of the county.

"I think that it's a positive step," said Bob Norwood, chairman of the Rock Hill School Board and one of the founders of All on Board. "I think that kind of goes back to what our original goal was, and that's educating everyone on the problem."

The survey asked seventh-, ninth- and 11th-graders about their alcohol and drug use and what influences their decisions when it comes to drinking and drugs. Participation was voluntary, but at least 63 percent of students in each grade level took part.

Highlights include:

• By 11th-grade, 62 percent of participants said they had consumed alcohol. That's up from 25 percent of participating seventh-graders.

• More than 35 percent of participants in all three grades said they have ridden in a car with someone who had been drinking.

• Students said it is easier to get beer than tobacco.

• About 8 percent of seventh graders, 12 percent of ninth-graders and 6 percent of 11th graders said they have huffed inhalants such as glue or sprays to get high.

Something that struck a chord with educators is that students said their parents are the No. 1 factor that influence their decision not to drink. That held true for 76 percent of participating 11th-graders and 89 percent of participating seventh-graders.

"Sometimes parents will say, 'Oh, the kids won't listen to me,' but you have to talk," said Susan York, the safe and drug free schools coordinator in Rock Hill. "They are listening. Whether they're responding or not, we want to encourage parents to have that ongoing conversation."

Alison Mallard, the mother of two teenagers at South Pointe High School, said she has talked to her kids their whole lives about things like drinking, so they understand the consequences.

"We don't talk about it all the time but I do remind them when they go out that they need to be very careful about the circumstances they're in and the choices that they make," she said.

Too good for drugs

When it comes to talking about drinking and drugs in schools, teachers have moved away from the "Just Say No" campaigns of the 1990s and toward a more comprehensive approach that shows teens how to make good decisions about things they will inevitably encounter.

"Just Say No" programs like D.A.R.E. framed drinking as a black and white issue without proof that such an approach was effective, said Jane Alleva, community relations director for Keystone, which is based in Rock Hill at 199 S. Herlong Avenue.

"It didn't bring the kind of resources and protective factors kids needed to say no," she said.

New programs, such as "Too Good for Drugs," focus more on teaching teens skills to make healthy choices for themselves.

Schools in Fort Mill and Rock Hill are beginning conversations about drinking and drugs by the fifth grade. That education continues until the students leave high school.

Although most students aren't drinking or doing drugs at school, it is the one place everyone is in one room to talk about the problem.

"They are more savvy not to do things at schools," said Marty McGinn, director of middle and secondary education in Fort Mill. "They are doing it someplace else. When students aren't supervised, that's when things go wrong."

Keystone works with all four York County school districts to offer additional classes that cover topics such as self esteem, decision making, positive peer relationships, health consequences of substance abuse and fundamentals of addiction. Keystone staff go to the schools during the school day.

Students are given surveys before and after the classes to find out if their perceptions and behaviors changed.

Results show the students report using less alcohol, drugs and tobacco products after taking the Keystone classes.

"A lot of things that we're talking about --character building, good decision making -- are things that our schools are giving our kids every day," Alleva said. "We're just tying that into the alcohol and drug addiction piece."

A task with no end

Outside of schools, York County All on Board is creating a "We ID" logo to give to merchants who sell alcohol. The logo, which is being paid for with grant money, should start showing up in stores this spring.

"I don't think this is a task that has an end to it," Norwood said.

"The thing that we have to do here is to be persistent and diligent and make sure that we are always sending out the message that it's risky and always sending out the message that we care about our kids and always finding ways to help them live productive lives with their free time."