In Montana, alcohol is the drug of choice for teenagers.
Montana high school students are more likely than their peers nationwide to have used alcohol and more likely to have engaged in binge drinking, according the most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The YRBS, conducted every two years by health and education authorities in each state, found that in 2009, nearly 76 percent of Montana students in grades 9-12 said they had consumed alcoholic beverages. That figure compares to about 72 percent for Wyoming youth and a national median of 68 percent.
More troubling is the statistic that puts Montana at No. 2 worst for the percentage of grade 9-12 students who say they have had five or more drinks in a row. According to the survey, 30.1 percent of Montanans and 30.7 percent of North Dakota youth said they had consumed five or more drinks in one bout. The national median was 24 percent.
The survey leaves no doubt that Montana youth are at risk for alcohol-related traffic crashes:
Nearly 29 percent of Montana youth surveyed said they had ridden with a driver who had been drinking.
13.5 percent said they had driven themselves while drinking. Wyoming youth had similar responses, putting both states far above the median for youth traveling with drinking drivers.
Research conducted earlier this year by Professor Tim Conley of the University of Montana School of Social Work and UM students makes the connection between youth drinking and DUI even clearer.
Conley, Sara Shapiro, Kimberly Spurzem and Stacy Hardy interviewed more than 200 felony DUI convicts undergoing addiction treatment at Warm Springs or Glendive. Their average age was 43 and all had at least four DUI convictions. Half had their first DUI conviction by age 21.
“This single variable is a strong indicator that multiple DUI offenders begin their progression in the teen years and that underage drinking and DUI felonies are correlated,” the UM researchers said in a report to the Legislature's Interim Law and Justice Committee.
Many of the DUI offenders said they had received minor in possession citations and that it was the norm for teens to drink as they were growing up.
That “norm” must change.
After making an extensive study of DUI over nearly two years, the Law and Justice Committee endorsed a dozen related bill proposals, including three aimed at deterring youth from drinking:
Mandatory training for alcohol servers and sales people on compliance with state laws on underage drinking. Violations would carry a civil fine. Sen. Lynda Moss of Billings is sponsoring this proposal as Senate Bill 29.
Making loss of driver's license till age 18 the penalty for youth convicted of possessing or consuming an alcoholic beverage. Sen. Greg Hinkle of Thompson Falls is sponsoring this proposal in Senate Bill 10.
Allowing state game wardens to issue minor in possession citations to youth on lands owned or operated by the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Senate Bill 39 is sponsored by Jim Shockley, of Victor.
In addition to the committee bills, Rep. Gordon Hendrick of Superior is sponsoring House Bill 20, which would authorize counties to enact social host ordinances. Billings and some other Montana cities have adopted these ordinances to hold parents and other adults accountable for allowing teen drinking parties to occur on their property. However, most counties can't enact such ordinances unless state law specifically permits it.
Each of these four bills has merit and we call on all Montana lawmakers to support them in the session that starts Jan. 3. The problem of underage alcohol use and abuse will require more than one change in state law. Moreover, as pointed out again by the UM researchers, the teen and public perception of underage drinking as “normal and acceptable” must change.