Panel looks to increase parents' responsibility on underage drinking

ALBANY — Members of a new panel tackling how to handle the growing underage-drinking problem said today that one priority should be making sure parents understand the risks of letting their children consume alcohol, particularly in the home.

Alcohol is the No. 1 drug of choice for youth in America, and more than 75 percent of high-school students have had alcohol by the time they graduate, according to officials with the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services. More than half of 12th graders and a fifth of eighth graders have been drunk at least once. About 823,000 New Yorkers under 21 drink each year.

"We know that 50 percent of the kids in grades 7 through 12 had a drink last month. For some of them -- their one and only drink. For others, the start of their drinking, the start of their drugging, the start of the addiction," said Karen Carpenter-Palumbo, commissioner of alcoholism and substance abuse services.

Underage drinking costs more than $3 billion a year in New York -- in youth injuries, deaths, crashes, fetal-alcohol syndrome, fights, poisonings, property crime, rapes and other areas, she said.

One of the 21-member panel's charges will be to look at social-host legislation that was proposed by the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, Carpenter-Palumbo said. The bill would prohibit anyone 18 or older who owns, rents or controls a private residence from allowing underage drinking on their property. The penalties would be $250 for the first offense, $500 for the second, and $1,000 and/or up to a year in prison the third time. The legislation, which passed in the Senate but died in the Assembly this year, would not affect local social-host laws, which have been considered around the state.

A study by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration concluded that more than 40 percent of the country's estimated 10.8 million current underage drinkers (youth between 12 and 20 who drank in the past month) were provided free alcohol by adults 21 or older. The report also found that one in 16 underage drinkers (650,000) was given alcohol by a parent in the past month.

New York should pass a social-host law not only because of the number of underage youth who consume alcohol in their homes, but also the aftermath of their drinking, said Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, D-Brooklyn, who is sponsoring legislation on the issue. Ortiz said he has heard the argument that parents should be able to allow drinking in their own homes, but the stakes are too high not to strengthen penalties for doing that.

"I respect parents who say that but I think parents have to also understand that we have a job to do and if they don't know how to take the responsibility, government will," he said.

Council member Frank V. Ciaccia, assistant county manager and the Stop-DWI coordinator in Genesee County, said it's important to focus on parents because they have such influence over the behavior of their children.

Genesee County has an underage-drinking tip line to notify police about parties that are underway or being planned. Members of the panel discussed whether there should be just one hotline statewide, since many communities don't have their own, but Ciaccia said local hotlines should continue. People feel more comfortable talking to a law-enforcement official familiar with the address.

The State Police have a hotline to report illegal purchase or consumption of alcohol by underage drinkers. The number is 866-UNDER21, and calls are referred to law-enforcement agencies around the state.

Stefan Kalogridis, president of the Eastern New York Liquor Stores Association, said his group supports the state's efforts to curb children's access to alcohol. The state's liquor retailers are often faced with people using or trying to use fake IDs and buyers who purchase alcohol and give it to minors.

The association is hoping to launch a program this fall that would provide owners of liquor stores with discounts on scanners. Many are small mom-and-pop businesses that may not have the ability to buy the equipment at full price, Kalogridis said.