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Over the last few years, national surveys have shown that teen binge drinking is on the decline. But new research from the University of California shows a different picture. An emergency room in Sacramento tracked teen drinking and saw a steady rise of severely intoxicated middle and high school-aged kids.
From Capital Public Radio, Kelley Weiss reports.
KELLEY WEISS: It was two years ago when Leandra Ybarra 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.
Ms. LEANDRA YBARRA: I finished a whole bottle in less than 30 minutes or so. I mean, I blacked out. The last thing I honestly remember is my fishing pole falling into the river. Since we were downhill, they actually had to drag me up.
WEISS: Ybarra is now a senior at Pioneer High School in Woodland, northwest of Sacramento. As she tells her story, she looks down at the floor.
Ms. YBARRA: I wasn't waking up, and I was unconscious and I couldn't breathe.
WEISS: When Ybarra's mom, Lucinda Barrone(ph), got to the hospital, she says the doctor told her that her daughter might not make it. Ybarra's blood alcohol level was .5, five times the legal limits.
Ms. LUCINDA BARRONE: You don't think it would happen to your kid, but a lot of the times when your kid's away from you, you really don't know what they're doing. These kids go to parties and you know that there's alcohol, I would say at least 80 percent of the time.
WEISS: Ybarra says her mom is right. And she says for many kids today, it's all about how much they can drink.
Ms. YBARRA: There's no I'm going to have a buzz and then I'll be okay. No, they drink as much as they can take in before either blacking out or passing out.
WEISS: Life-threatening events like Ybarra's are on the rise, according to new research from the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. In the last three years, they've seen a 30 percent increase in kids between 12 and 17 coming to the ER with injuries from binge drinking, and they had higher blood alcohol levels than in the past. Christy Adams(ph) helped compile that data.
Ms. CHRISTY ADAMS: We are, as well, seeing younger children coming into our emergency department, as young as nine, and I believe a few years ago we did actually have a six-year-old that came in intoxicated. But usually it's around anywhere, 12 and 13, are the younger ones that we're seeing.
WEISS: This increase is consistent with data coming out of DAWN, the Drug Abuse Warning Network. This federal program tracks emergency room visits for teen binge drinking. Over the last couple of years, it looked at 12 metropolitan areas and saw a significant increase in ER visits. And a third of them, including Denver, Phoenix and New York City, San Diego had the highest jump -almost 140 percent.
So, what about that national survey that says teen drinking is on the decline? Well, Lloyd Johnston is with Monitoring the Future, the self-reported survey that's considered the gold standard for tracking teen drinking. Johnston says he's not surprised by the increase in ER visits. While overall numbers are down, he says that maybe that the kids who are drinking are just drinking much more.
Mr. LLOYD JOHNSTON (Monitoring the Future): It could be still that among those who drink, there's more extreme forms of drinking, that are more likely to end up in the emergency room.
WEISS: So, why are kids into more extreme forms of drinking these days? Michael Scippa is with the alcohol industry watchdog group, The Marin Institute. He blames alcohol manufacturers - their marketing tactics, their Web sites and their text messages.
Mr. MICHAEL SCIPPA (The Marin Institute): With the advent of the Internet and the ability to digitally reach millions of youth, you know, without their parents' knowledge, has opened up a door to a very effective form of marketing that they never had before.
WEISS: Scippa says there's also the alcopop. They are energy drinks with 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 like Smirnoff Ice. She points to three Federal Trade Commission reports that determined alcohol manufacturers are not marketing to underage drinkers.
Ms. ZSOKA MCDONALD (Diageo North America): What research has shown by outside groups is that kids who drink get their alcohol from other adults. So what Diageo and other companies have advocated for is preventing kids from getting alcohol in the first place.
WEISS: That's just not enough, according to Dr. Mark Mycyk at Boston Medical Center. He's a toxicologist. And he predicts a rocky future for teenagers in the next decade unless policymakers start paying attention to the problem.
Dr. MARK MYCYK (Toxicologist, Boston Medical Center): This binge drinking problem is going to get worse before it gets better. And it makes me really sad to say that, but I don't see a major change happening until some people recognize that it's gotten to the point where it requires, like, some kind of national policy action.
WEISS: That's not happening yet, but UC Davis recently got a grant for a pilot project they hope emergency departments around the country could use. They'll train ER nurses to do immediate interventions or wake-up calls about underage drinking onsite with the binge drinking teens and their parents.
For NPR News, I'm Kelley Weiss in Sacramento.
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