Teen drinking: the health and legal risks

After placing my items on the belt at a small grocery store in New Jersey, I was quite surprised to look up and see a teenage girl in front of me getting handcuffed by the police.  Last summer the store was not selling alcoholic beverages.  This year they are. The employee at the cash register was herself a teenager, and when I asked her what was going on, she told me the girl was buying alcohol and “Well, it’s against the law.”

It is against the law. The legal age for drinking is 21 —no ifs, ands, or buts.  Well, maybe one “but:” In New Jersey , parents can serve alcohol to their own teens within their own residence.  In Pennsylvania, there are no exceptions

One of my patients got drunk at a high school party and was taken to the hospital and then the police department. Not being allowed to remain the captain of her sports team was the least of the problems that ensued.

Laws with no “buts.” Parents are always legally liable if their child drinks to the point of drunkenness or becomes ill. And parents are never permitted to serve alcohol to anyone else’s children.

Zero tolerance for drinking and driving. All states have zero tolerance laws for teen drinking and driving. If a driver under 21 is caught driving with any alcohol in their blood, he or she will be arrested for Driving Under the Influence (DUI).

Another patient of mine began crying when she told me about her 18-year-old brother who died in a motor vehicle accident.  He had been drinking and driving.

Why are the laws so strict? The many health risks of teen drinking include motor vehicle accidents. Traffic crashes are the number one cause of death for teenagers in the United States, and 31 percent of these young drivers had been drinking.

Sometimes parents are part of the problem.  A survey of teens 13 to 18 years old by the American Medical Association found some revealing information:

  • 33% responded that it is easy to obtain alcohol from their own parents—and their parents know they’re doing it.
  • 40% responded that it is easy to obtain alcohol from a friend’s parent.
  • 25% attended a party where minors were drinking in front of parents.

I heard about a group of teen camp counselors who went to the shore for the weekend and got drunk on the beach. They were arrested and their parents had to drive down to the shore to face their teens’ consequences.

Breaking the law has consequences. If a teenager is caught buying, drinking, possessing or transporting alcohol, he or she may be fined, jailed, and have their driver’s license suspended. And parents who sell or furnish alcohol to minors may also get fined and jailed. 

A juvenile criminal record isn’t automatically erased. If a teen is charged with underage drinking in Pennsylvania, for example, the court will keep his or her record for 25 years unless an expungement is granted, and police records may be kept even longer.  It may make it more difficult to get a job.

“Mistakes happen” but this kind should be prevented. 

My advice: share this information with your teenagers and other adults. We all need to know the law.

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