Underage Drinking

A Policy Statement Adopted by the House of Delegates, North Carolina Council of Churches, November 12, 2002

The Issue

In North Carolina and across the nation, alcohol possession and consumption among young people have become problems of grave concern that are threatening the health, productivity and well-being of all citizens. Alcohol is the number one drug of choice among young people.  Approximately 44% of high school students drink alcohol, 57% of middle school students have tried it, and 37 % of males and 25% of females report that they drank alcohol before age 13.

Further, injury is by far the leading cause of death among teens in North Carolina.   It is estimated that one-quarter to one-half of adolescent deaths resulting from suicide, homicide, and other injury (drowning, falls, and fires) involve alcohol.   Drinking also increases the chances that a young person will become a victim of date rape, be assaulted by a stranger, engage in unprotected sex and/or promiscuous behavior, or become involved in abusive and violent relationships.

Drinking and driving can have fatal consequences, though the risks are often ignored until a tragedy occurs.  There were 465 alcohol-related traffic fatalities in North Carolina in 2000. Forty-four of those deaths involved impaired drivers ages 16 to 20. Looked at another way, nearly a fourth of 16- to 20-year-old drivers fatally injured in crashes in 1999 had blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) of 0.10% or more. (Driving with a BAC of 0.08% constitutes driving while impaired.) While young drivers are less likely than adults to drive after drinking alcohol, their crash risks are substantially higher when they do. This is especially true at low and moderate BACs and is thought to result from teenagers’ relative inexperience both with drinking and with driving and, especially, with combining these activities. Teenage drivers with BACs in the 0.05-0.10% range are far more likely than sober teenage drivers to be killed in single-vehicle crashes—18 times more likely for males, 54 times more likely for females. These disparities between sober and drinking teenage drivers drop in half for drivers over age 25.

Despite minimum-age purchase laws (age 21 for all forms of beverage alcohol) and other restrictions in North Carolina targeted at controlling the access of alcohol to underage youth, young people continue to purchase and consume alcohol at an alarming rate.  In addition to the costs in lives and care for youth who suffer from alcohol-related injuries and illness, the economic costs are also substantial.  Underage drinking costs the state $1.15 billion in lost productivity, medical expenditures, violence, and crime. There is also a strong link between alcohol and delinquent and/or criminal behavior, and alcohol use often leads to other drug use.

Why People of Faith Should Care about Reducing Underage Drinking

Because early use of alcohol is such a causal factor in teen death and injury, there is reason for the faith community’s involvement in this issue. All faiths recognize the importance of one generation training and seeing to the needs of the next.  Whether it is through the family or the “village,” the care of children and youth is a universal responsibility. The Hebrew Scriptures (for example, Deuteronomy 4:9; Psalm 78:1-8; Proverbs 22:6) reflect the importance of the older generation teaching the younger. Jesus’ words also reflect the importance of parents caring for their children. When he was looking for a stark example of God’s care for God’s children, Jesus asked, “If your child asks for bread, will you give a stone? If your child asks for a fish, will you give a snake?” (Matthew 7:9-10). Reducing underage drinking is consistent with the faith community’s long-standing concern for the well-being and full development of children and youth.

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse reports strong ties between church involvement with individuals and families and moderation in the use of all drugs by both adults and teens. The data also show that clergy can impact the lives of individuals confronted with choices about drugs and alcohol and that communities of faith can effect change in the environment which makes choosing drugs and alcohol less desirable for youth.

Faith communities teach responsibility and discipline. Responsibility is an attitude that leads to longer-range consideration of actions and policies.  To be responsible is to consider the consequences, both present and future, of one’s choices on oneself and on others.  This affects both individual behavior and public policy. Discipline leads to moderation, a set of behaviors that produces a faithful and healthy lifestyle.

Policy Recommendations

Faith communities also need to speak out in public policy debates that affect underage drinking. To that end, we endorse the following policy positions:

1. Increase number of Alcohol Law Enforcement (ALE) agents.

The ALE Division is the single state agency authorized to enforce the alcohol laws. It also plays a critical role in prevention. ALE provides training and education to store clerks about how to properly check IDs to prevent underage sales. The agency aims to provide consistent, on-going monitoring of retail stores, which has been shown to reduce alcohol sales to underage persons. It educates the public, particularly parents and school children, about the harmful effects of alcohol.

Despite its essential role in prevention and enforcement, ALE has fewer than 90 field agents for the entire state, less than one per county. They are responsible for monitoring almost 17,500 licensed alcohol outlets. To make matters worse, ALE suffered cuts in personnel in 2001 and is slated to lose more agents in the 2002 budget crisis. The state needs to be increasing, not decreasing, the number of agents enforcing alcohol laws.

2. Limit the retail sale of kegs; require special one-time purchase permits for individuals and groups.

Beer kegs are a popular source of alcohol at teen parties.  They provide alcohol at the cheapest price and require only one purchase, usually arranged with a friend over 21.  The low cost and high volume contribute to heavy, problematic drinking.  People who purchase kegs are not taking enough responsibility for preventing teens from obtaining access to that alcohol.

The state already regulates large volumes of wine and liquor, requiring individuals and groups to obtain permits to purchase and transport large quantities of these beverages. The new policy would broaden the regulation to include keg beer.  This policy would not prevent the wholesale purchase of keg beer by restaurants or the retail sale to authorized individuals or groups for special one-time events (e.g., by a non-profit agency for a fundraiser).

3. Mandate training and licensing for alcohol servers/sellers.

Retailers have a duty to insure that employees who serve or sell alcohol are knowledgeable about responsible beverage practices, such as how to identify and refuse service to minors and intoxicated persons, and about state alcohol laws, such as the four acceptable types of ID or the penalty for selling to a minor. However, there are no uniform standards for training alcohol sellers or servers on such practices.  Training, if it occurs at all, is left up to the employer and varies widely in content, duration, and effectiveness. Twenty-two states have laws that either mandate or provide incentives for uniform training for alcohol sellers and/or servers.

Further, despite the critical role they play in preventing sales or service to underage or intoxicated customers, store clerks and bartenders do not have to be licensed to perform that role.  Licensure provides two important functions:  it insures a minimum standard for knowledge or skill by the licensee, and it prevents employees terminated for selling to minors from easily obtaining employment at another store.  In recognition of the responsibility and role alcohol sellers and servers play on behalf of their communities, the state should mandate adequate training and accountability for them. Costs of this licensure should be kept low, so as not to be unduly burdensome on sellers, servers, or small businesses.

4. Mandate that customers show identification to purchase alcohol.

The state does not require retailers to check ID’s of prospective alcohol purchasers.  Retailers are often verbally harassed by customers when clerks ask for age verification for alcohol purchases.  While many retailers have in-store policies to check ID’s for purchasers who look under 25 or 30, retailers feel they are at a competitive disadvantage for going this extra step.  This is an issue of fairness:  stores and clerks should not be punished for doing what is right.   By mandating that all customers must show proper identification to purchase alcohol, the state would effectively “level the playing field” so that everyone is using the same rules.

5. Increase excise tax on beer.

The state excise tax on beer, which is a flat amount per bottle, not a percentage of the price, has not been raised since 1969. While prices and manufacturers’ profits have soared, inflation has eroded the tax by 80%. A nickel increase per bottle of beer would generate $83 million.

We support such an increase for two reasons. First, the tax is more like a service fee, with revenues needed for services that assist alcohol abusers and that prevent or deter illegal alcohol use. This is especially true as cuts in the state’s budget are reducing substance abuse services and alcohol law enforcement. We will support an increase in the excise tax on beer only if its revenues are designated for the Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities, and Substance Abuse Trust Fund or in some other way used exclusively to deter alcohol use by youth and to combat the effects of alcohol abuse (both by youth and adults).

Second, price increases have the most impact on youth consumption rates. The data show that when beer prices increase, fewer teens die or are injured in car crashes, and family violence and sexually-transmitted diseases decrease.

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