44. Law Takes Aim at Underage Drinking (South Carolina) Charleston Post
September 10, 2007
Families and communities across this state have all experienced pain and tragedy as a result of underage drinking. The bottom line is that too many South Carolina teenagers are experimenting with alcohol, some are becoming binge drinkers, and sadly, kids are dying.
Information compiled by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation indicates cause for alarm. Of those surveyed in grades 9-12, close to three out of four have experimented with some form of alcohol, 43 percent had at least one drink in the last 30 days, and 24 percent had five or more drinks in the last month.
This year, the S.C. Legislature took the issue head on. In June, a comprehensive bill was passed that significantly strengthened our laws related to underage drinking and imposed severe penalties for those that provide or sell alcohol to minors.
The writing of this new law began last fall when we convened a series of meetings to better understand the weaknesses in current laws, and to see what could be done to address this problem. We were fortunate to have many advocacy groups, alcohol prevention and treatment organizations, law enforcement and private industry at the table. The result was new legislation that was introduced at the beginning of session - "The Prevention of Underage Drinking and Access to Alcohol Act."
Over the next six months, the bill gained overwhelming bipartisan support and passed the Legislature. Gov. Sanford signed it into law on June 15.
Here is a brief summary of the changes:
For those under the age of 21, it is not only illegal to purchase or possess alcohol, this same prohibition now applies to those who attempt to purchase or consume alcohol. Fines and driver's license suspensions have been increased, and most importantly, a provision has been added requiring all teenagers convicted of these charges to attend an alcohol education and intervention program.
It was imperative to provide an opportunity for youth to better understand the consequences of alcohol, have access to treatment and to turn their lives around.
Fines have also been increased for merchants who sell alcohol to those under the age of 21. Additionally, there is a new requirement that these merchants attend an approved merchant education program to train them on the proper screening procedures to prevent underage purchases. And now, minors can legally assist law enforcement in testing the compliance of retailers.
A key provision of the bill, and one that our friends in law enforcement feel very strongly about, is beer keg registration. Beginning Jan. 1, anyone who purchases a keg of beer will be required to fill out a short form with the retailer and the keg will be marked with an identification tag. These steps will assist police officers in determining, and ultimately charging, the person who bought the beer when they break up a keg party where minors are drinking.
The new law is a big step forward in reducing underage drinking, but legislation alone won't solve this problem. There is a misconception that kids are naturally going to drink, and this is just a rite of passage.
As parents and as a community, we must begin to deal with this crisis in a whole different way. We have to do a better job of educating our kids about the dangers of alcohol, and continuously reinforce our stance against underage drinking.
Now that schools have started back, you will hear more about law enforcement's efforts to crack down on underage drinking. On a recent weekend in Columbia, more than 70 arrests were made for this offense alone.
Sure, on the surface, it is good to know that the new law has given our law enforcement more tools to deal with this issue.But what we are really after, and what will truly define progress, is a decline in teenage drinking and alcohol-related fatalities. Protecting, educating and guiding our children should be our top priority.