Knowledge dispels ignorance. And when it comes to underage drinking and other drug use, we as a society are astonishingly and shamefully ignorant. Efforts by the media and public officials to enlighten residents are critical to breaking this woeful lack of awareness.

The sky is falling on our teens and young adults, and there is plenty of responsibility to go around: from permissive parents who think it's better to have their teens drink at home than risk drunken driving, to colleges and universities turning a blind eye to ever-increasing binge drinking on campuses and at local bars.

If Americans knew that 13,000 tweens and teens take their first drink of alcohol every day, could we any longer be blind to the epidemic in our midst? If more teens were aware that regular marijuana use at age 15 or younger makes one susceptible to a range of mental-health issues, from major depression to schizophrenia, would pot be the substance of choice for many teens?

If parents and grandparents, whose medicine cabinets are chock full of narcotic pain medicine and other addictive prescription medications (such as sleep aids) understood how teens steal these meds to get high and sell them to peers, would the felony thefts continue?

Don't be fooled. There is no silver bullet for the addiction issues we face. It will take education and nationwide zero-tolerance laws with automatic license revocation for teens who drive after drinking or using drugs. Let's advocate a police presence, armed with Breathalyzers, outside bars at closing time and a government crackdown on beer and liquor advertising that targets children and minimizes the deleterious effects of these legal anesthetics.

Let's see through the smoke screen of the alcohol-industry lobby. Advertising that purports support for "responsible drinking" and designated drivers is a farce. After the numbers showed that teens traveling with a designated driver drank up to five times more alcohol, beer companies suddenly became outspoken proponents of designated drivers.

There is more to consider: According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse , alcohol misuse cost America $220 billion in 2005, more than the cost of cancer ($196 billion) and the tab for obesity ($133 billion). The center's research also indicates that teens who drank regularly at 15 and younger were four times more likely to become alcohol-dependent than those who waited until 21 to drink. Most worrisome is that 26 percent of underage drinkers are abusing or dependent on alcohol, a figure three times that of the adult population.

The alcohol industry also does not want us to know that 13,000 to 17,000 persons are slaughtered on our highways and back roads each year. With the summer season upon us, let's all redouble our efforts to address the scourge that alcohol and other substance abuse represents.


Thomas M. Greaney is a drug and alcohol counselor in Westerly, R.I. For more stories visit scrippsnews.com