National surveys over the past few years have shown that teen binge drinking is on the decline. But new data out of the University of California show a different picture.
An emergency room in Sacramento tracked teen drinking and saw a steady rise in severely intoxicated middle and high school age youths.
Kids like Leandra Ybarra. She almost died from alcohol poisoning. She was 15 at the time and had skipped school with some of her friends. They went down to a local river to fish and drink some coconut-flavored rum. She says she finished a whole bottle in less than 30 minutes and blacked out.
Ybarra says for many teens, it's all about how much they can drink. "There's no 'I'm going to have a buzz and I'll be OK,' " she says. "They drink as much as they can take in before either blacking out or passing out."
In the past three years, the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento saw a 30 percent increase in children between 12 and 17 coming to the ER with injuries from binge drinking. And they had higher blood alcohol levels than in the past. Emergency departments across the country say they're seeing the same thing.
These findings seem to contradict Monitoring the Future, a self-reported survey that is considered the gold standard for tracking risky behavior in teens.
Lloyd Johnston, a principal investigator with Monitoring the Future, oversees the questionnaire that asks kids about their drinking habits. He says the survey is not seeing more kids drinking. In fact, his study has found fewer kids drinking over the past eight or 10 years.
Still, Johnston says there could be a reason for the conflicting reports: "It could be still that among those who drink, there's more extreme forms of drinking, and they're more likely to end up in the emergency room."
That hypothesis rings true with the Drug Abuse Warning Network, or DAWN, which is part of the federal Department of Health and Human Services. The data-collection network tracks emergency room visits for teen binge drinking.
DAWN surveyed 12 metropolitan areas over the past couple of years. Four of those areas saw a significant increase in ER visits due to teen binge drinking from 2004 to 2006. Denver had a 50 percent jump, from 644 estimated visits to 778; Phoenix saw a 49 percent rise, from 460 to 725. In New York City, such ER visits were up 35 percent, from 899 to 1,211. San Diego had the highest increase: 139 percent, from 183 visits to 438.
Michael Scippa is with the Marin Institute, an alcohol industry watchdog group. He blames the binge drinking trend on the alcohol industry.
Scippa says alcohol manufacturers are reaching teens by using new marketing tactics, including Web sites and text messages.
"With the advent of the Internet and the ability to digitally reach millions of youth, without their parents' knowledge, [it] has opened up a door to a very effective form of marketing that they never had before," he says.
Scippa says there's also the "alcopop." These are energy drinks that contain alcohol, or sweetened alcoholic products like Mike's Hard Lemonade. He says they're made for underage drinkers.
Alcohol industry representatives deny the allegations. Zsoka McDonald is with Diageo North America, which makes flavored malt beverages such as Smirnoff Ice. She points to three Federal Trade Commission reports that determined that alcohol manufacturers are not marketing to underage drinkers.
"What research has shown from outside groups is that kids who drink get their alcohol from other adults," McDonald says. "So what Diageo and other companies have advocated for is preventing kids from getting alcohol in the first place."
Dr. Mark Mycyk is a toxicologist at Boston Medical Center. He predicts that the teen "binge drinking problem is going to get worse before it gets better."
"And it makes me really sad to say that," he says, "but I don't see a major change happening until some people recognize that it's gotten to the point where it requires some kind of national policy action."