2006 has been busy for our Coalition, and a year that has included significant accomplishment and important victories in our continuing effort to eliminate underage drinking and drug use by youth in our community. In particular, I wanted to report to you about significant legislative accomplishments in the General Assembly.
Foremost, I want to thank our legislative delegation for their continuing support of our work, and in particular want to commend Representative Joe Hackney for his tireless efforts in Raleigh. As most of you know, Representative Hackney is the House Majority Leader, and, in addition, Chairman of the Governor’s DWI Task Force. As such, he became a legislative sponsor and key leader in obtaining General Assembly approval for the measures I note below, which are part of the Governor’s DWI legislative proposals. I urge you to contact Representative Hackney, Representative Verla Insko (co-sponsor of the bill) and other legislators to thank them for their dedicated work and support.
The final version of the Governor’s DWI Task Force Recommendations was overwhelmingly ratified by both Houses (a unanimous vote in the House and a 47-1 vote in the Senate), is expected to be signed by Gov. Easley and become law on December 1, 2006. This important piece of legislation included many provisions related to DWI's and several of these provisions are of particular interest on the underage drinking front:
First – Under 21 Alcohol Consumption –While it has long been illegal for underage persons to possess, purchase or attempt to purchase alcohol, pertinent statutes were silent as to the "consumption" of alcohol by the underage drinker. Because of this lack of specificity, it led to an inconsistent application of the law in North Carolina when teens had been consuming alcoholic beverages, but were not visually seen in "possession" of the alcohol by an officer. In some communities, law enforcement would routinely cite the offending youth for "possession" with or without any visual observation, while officers in other communities would not cite the offending youth unless expressly accompanied by their visual observation of possession (even when the youth was obviously impaired by the alcohol). In effect, some agencies interpreted this to mean that it was illegal to "possess" alcohol, but not illegal for teens to "consume" alcohol. Without addressing this issue of how alcohol could be "consumed" without "possession," the State legislature has now resolved it. The General Assembly clarified this by making it illegal for any person under 21 to "consume" alcohol.
This is important for prevention advocates in North Carolina, and will lead to a more consistent and common sense application of the law, which is meant, as a matter of public policy, to keep alcohol out of the bodies (and hands) of children.
Second – Keg-Permitting – You probably followed our efforts before the Town Council of Chapel Hill in urging their support for keg registration. Distilled spirits, along with wine purchases above a specific quantity, have long required registration information with the ABC. However, no such registration or information was required for the acquisition of beer kegs. Beer, because of its relatively low cost, is often the beverage of choice for underage drinkers. Beer kegs compound the problem because it enables youth to purchase beer in even larger quantities and at lower cost. Along with that is the reality that the supply of beer to the underage drinker from a keg is unlimited and unmonitored, typically enhancing the likelihood of greater consumption and abuse of alcohol.
As background, keg-registration legislation is a "best-practice" strategy (IOM Report 2003) intended to aid law enforcement in tracking down the purchaser of a beer keg should it end up in the hands of underage drinkers. In states that have passed keg registration, every keg is imprinted with a serial number and is traceable back to the retailer who sold it. The adult who was "registered" for that keg and purchased it, could then potentially be charged as an adult provider.
Our new legislative version provided for keg-permitting, rather than keg-registration. With keg-permitting, an adult purchaser must obtain a permit from the beer retailer, specify where the keg is being transported and must produce the permit upon request of law enforcement. We believe this legislation can impact underage drinking by requiring an extra layer of accountability for the adult-purchaser and help hold them responsible should underage youth drink from the keg. We did not get everything we wanted in this legislation but it is an important start in North Carolina, and we will continue to work to strengthen its provisions. The new provisions for keg permitting in North Carolina are as follows:
1) Retailers will be responsible for issuing keg permits.
2) Kegs to be covered by a permit include full kegs (15 gallons) and "pony" kegs (7.75 gallons). Purchase of a "party" keg (5 gallons) does not require a permit.
3) Retailers will be required to keep permits on file for 90 days. By request of any person, a retailer must retain the permit for a requested period of time beyond the 90 day period.
4) It is a Class 1 misdemeanor if a buyer does not obtain a permit for a full or pony keg.
While we don’t claim that keg permitting, or changes in consumption laws, standing alone, will eliminate underage drinking, we do believe they serve as additional tools in the prevention toolbox.
It’s significant to remember that a dominant, influential and long-term force in legislative bodies across the country, is the alcohol industry. This year, we joined together with other Coalitions in North Carolina to be the counter-voice to this entity, working closely with legislators helping to educate them on the measures contained in the new bill that could help us fight against underage drinking. The alcohol industry is no longer the only voice being heard by the General Assembly and we will continue to work with our leaders to look for ways to improve the laws in order to protect our children.
Youth in America are bombarded daily with messages from the alcohol industry, glorifying, trivializing or "humorizing" its use. But it is not a product without consequence. If their messages are to be believed, it would be easy to draw the conclusion that life, romance, recreation and the good-times can all be fulfilled by drinking. Today, nearly 18% of all alcohol sales are to underage drinkers, representing nearly $23 billion dollars in profits annually to the alcohol industry. While the early initiation of youth to alcohol supports the financial interests of the alcohol industry by continuously bringing in new customers, our children are their victims as evidenced by:
- 2006 Duke University researchers report that alcohol causes more damage to the developing brains of teenagers than was previously thought, injuring them significantly more than it does adult brains. (see New York Times article, The Grim Neurology of Teenage Drinking, July 4, 2006)
- 2006 Columbia University study finding that 25% of underage drinkers meet standard criteria for alcohol abuse and dependence
a range of adverse short-and long-term consequences, including academic and/or social problems; unwanted, unintended, and unprotected sexual activity; physical and sexual assault; memory problems; increased risk of suicide and homicide; physical problems such as hangovers or illnesses; alcohol-related car crashes and other unintentional injuries such as burns, falls, and drownings; and death from alcohol poisoning. (www.NIAAA.nih.gov)
- As advocates for our children, we must work constantly to find ways to send our own powerful, consistent, "no use" messages to our young people. A friend of mine once said, "The alcohol industry is not the enemy. Preventing underage drinking is about social marketing and the industry is just our competition."