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This guest can poison the party

ALCOHOL AWARENESS MONTH • Entrenched in spring rites, touted by liquor companies, alcohol can change young lives Ñ or end them altogether

Spring is here. It's a time for new beginnings and a host of rites and passages for young Oregonians, such as prom and graduation.

All too often, however, alcohol plays an important part in these celebrations, and the results can be tragic. We all know of lives cut short by alcohol poisoning, drunken driving or accidents fueled by booze. To make matters worse, society often winks at teen use of alcohol, considering it acceptable or beyond our control. It's not, and it isn't. Parents and teens need to talk about alcohol use and abuse. The costs of not having those discussions can be devastating.

Beyond the immediate, sometimes tragic consequences of illegal alcohol use and abuse, there is a growing body of scientific evidence indicating that regular drinking by young people severely limits normal functioning of parts of the brain. Research shows that early alcohol abuse may significantly harm the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory and learning. Perhaps alcoholic beverages should come with warning labels that read 'Warning: Regular consumption of alcoholic beverages by youth may severely limit one's ability to get into college, find a decent job or lead a normal life.'

For some perspective on the consequences of teen alcohol use, consider the following:

• Boston University researchers have shown that young people who begin drinking before age 21 are three times more likely to be injured in alcohol-related accidents than those who wait until they reach 21.

• The federal Centers for Disease Control identifies alcohol as a major factor in suicides among 15- to 24-year-olds, a leading cause of death for this age group.

• About 25 percent of young drivers (ages 15 to 19) involved in fatal car crashes are intoxicated, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says.

• Middle and high school students who use alcohol are twice as likely to fail in school and are almost 10 times more likely to be involved in a fight with a weapon, the state of Oregon's annual student survey shows.

Parents who think that their children do not drink alcohol should think again. There's no doubt that it plays an important part in the lives of our young people.

According to the Oregon Office of Mental Health and Addiction Services, more than 50 percent of Oregon high school seniors used alcohol in the last month, and a stunning

26 percent of Oregon eighth-graders used alcohol in the last month. Many of these students are not moderate drinkers. Approximately 31 percent of all high school seniors are binge drinkers, meaning they drink five or more drinks in a sitting.

Festive rites of spring can be traced all the way back to ancient Rome when citizens celebrated Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and intoxication, with festivals beginning in March. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but ultimately the Roman Senate outlawed the practice because of the damage inflicted on their society. They recognized that the human and civic cost of these drunken fests far outweighed the benefit of the celebration itself Ñ they became bereft of meaning and therefore not worth holding.

It would be a shame if prom and graduation ceremonies began to lose their meaning for the same reasons.

Parents, educators and teens share a responsibility to recognize the prevalence of alcohol in our society and engage in frank discussions about how it affects young people and how to diminish its influence in young lives.

The time to engage young people is now. Spring rituals should celebrate our young people in meaningful ways and encourage them to be responsible, ensuring that bacchanalias don't ruin Oregon's baccalaureates.

Christopher J. Curtis is communications director of the Oregon Partnership, a statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to substance abuse prevention and treatment referral. Oregon Partnership is a member of the Oregon Coalition to Reduce Underage Drinking, a nonprofit group creating public policy solutions to underage drinking.