More underage drinkers end up in ER on New Year’s

By Michelle Healy, USA TODAY


Alcohol-related New Year’s celebrations send an alarmingly high number of young people to hospital emergency rooms, says a report out today.

In 2009, 1,980 hospital emergency department visits involved underage drinking, according to the report from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). That’s nearly four times the daily average number of emergency department visits for drinking-related visits by people under 21, the report says. It’s two to three times the number of visits recorded on other “party” holidays, namely Fourth of July weekend (942) and Memorial Day weekend (676)

The study looked at all alcohol-related ER visits, but it did not specify whether they involved traffic accidents, alcohol poisoning or other issues.

The huge rise of drinking-related incidents on New Year’s “should startle us. It should wake us up,” says Peter Delany, director of SAMHSA’s Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, which did the analysis.

Though any underage alcohol consumption is cause for concern, drinking can also increase the likelihood of other risky behaviors, Delany says.

The findings are in line with other research showing more alcohol-related problems over the winter holidays, SAMHSA says.

Two to three times more people die in alcohol-related vehicle crashes during that time than during comparable periods the rest of the year, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says. And 40% of traffic fatalities during winter holidays involved an alcohol-impaired driver, compared with 28% for other dates in December.

Fueling the underage drinking problem, especially at this time of the year, is “a combination of greater access to alcohol, less parental oversight and mixed messages” about celebrating with alcohol, Delany says.

Young people are told “don’t drink, don’t do that, but in every third commercial in recent weeks, we see something linked to alcohol and drinking,” he says.

And there’s also the issue of “what kind of message parents may give,” Delany adds. “Maybe they’re drinking a lot. Kids see that it’s OK.”

What is needed is a long-term message “that underage drinking is not OK,” he says. “But adolescents don’t do well with ‘Just say no.’ We have to find ways to help young people make good decisions.”

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Will Savage

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