The holiday season, with its emphasis on families, presents parents with the perfect opportunity to discuss an issue that involves the health and well-being of our children: underage drinking.

We want the best for our kids. That is especially evident this time of year, when we shower them with gifts and decorate our homes and yards with bright, sparkly lights. But I'm afraid that many, many parents and grandparents are in the dark about underage drinking and the destruction it can cause our children, our families and our communities.

I had the honor recently to serve as one of 12 members on a National Academy of Sciences panel that released to Congress the most comprehensive study ever undertaken on underage drinking. The results of the report were startling and scary. We found that underage drinking is a public health crisis that costs our country $53 billion annually.

Our children are starting to drink at a very early age, many when they are in the sixth or seventh grades. And they're not drinking socially; they're drinking to get drunk. The academy's study found that 20 percent of eighth-graders in the United States have been drunk and that nearly 7 million underage teens binge-drink, consuming five or more drinks in a short period of time.

Three teens die in this country each day when they drink and get behind the wheel. Drinking, in fact, is associated with the three major causes of teen death: accidents, suicide and homicide.

Some parents view alcohol use around the holidays as some sort of 'rite of passage' for their children, without thinking about how much is at risk when alcohol is mixed with young minds and bodies. But new studies by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reveal that alcohol consumption by adolescents results in brain damage Ñ possibly permanent Ñ and impairs intellectual development.

Recent research also has found that youths are getting the wrong message about alcohol. Alcohol companies are outshouting parents. Our kids see more television commercials for beer Ñ the No. 1 illicit drug in this country for teens Ñ than for chips, sneakers, jeans or juice. They are seeing the commercials on television shows popular with children and teens.

And during the holidays there are football bowl games and playoff games featuring a smorgasbord of clever, sexy beer ads that attract a huge audience of young, impressionable guys.

Given this, what can parents do?

For starters, take advantage of the holidays to talk to your children about the dangers of underage drinking and about how some of the ads they see romanticize products that are not only illegal but also harmful.

Also, teach them about the critical importance of the choices they make about alcohol. The academy's study found that parents play a significant role in their children's decision to use or not use alcohol.

Parents also need to put pressure on our policy-makers Ñ at the city, county, state and federal levels Ñ to make the beer industry refrain from targeting our children with their multibillion-dollar ad campaigns and to strengthen existing laws for minors in possession and for adults who furnish alcohol to our kids.

Not all kids drink, of course. As parents, and as communities and as a country, we need to recognize and celebrate the kids who abstain from alcohol and emulate and fund the programs that keep them abstinent.

I can't stress enough the importance of parents talking to their children about alcohol and taking a firm stance against teen drinking Ñ especially during the holidays. It will be a gift that keeps on giving.

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