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SPECIAL REPORT: Underage drinking outweighs opioid use in teens

BATH, N.Y. (18 NEWS) - The Steuben County Prevention Coalition is handling what it calls a "significant" underage drinking problem.

Although numbers are down compared to prior years, prevention advocates say statistics are still not low enough. 

In a special report, 18 News uncovers the dangers of drinking on the teenage brain and what's being done to stop it. 

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Alcohol use in teenagers can cause irreversible brain damage according to doctors. 

Almost 65 percent of 8th, 10th, and 12th grade students in Steuben County reported having at least one alcohol drink in the last 30 days in 2015. It's the latest year on record from a Risk and Protective Student Survey. 

"Alcohol, I believe, has become the forgotten drug," Jim Bassage, the prevention director for Steuben Council on Addictions, said. "There's an awful lot of emphasis on marijuana and the opioid epidemic and rightfully so. Those are terrible things that are going on in our society, but alcohol has been around for a long time."

Research by the coalition shows alcohol is the most used drug among youth in the county, heavily beating opioid use and it has deadly consequences. Since 2007, multiple underage drunk driving accidents have occurred leaving teenagers dead. As for opioid overdose deaths, Steuben County's office of emergency services only has data from 2015 and 2016 which shows 20 people died in those two years - none were teens. 

Alcohol consumption, doctors say, can cause negative effects on brain development because the brain doesn't fully grow until around 25 years old. 

According to the video above by Turning Point Training, billions of brain cell connections are made during the teenage years. Many are too slow or not needed, so most are removed naturally. Simultaneously, some connections become insulated to increase communication throughout the brain.

"If you don't make those connections when you're supposed to make those connections, then other connections down the line aren't made and it just starts this whole cascade of events," Dr. Chris, a neurologist with Cayuga Medical Center, said. "You can't go back and undo that. Once it's done, it's done."

Lifelong consequences include depression, anxiety, memory problems and poor decision-making.

This photo compares the brain of a 15-year-old male who doesn't drink on the left to one that does on the right (credit: Dr. Susan Tapert, University of California, San Diego professor).

These functional MRI cans were taken during a working memory test and show the heavy drinker, who was sober, isn't using the normal brain areas to complete the test while the other is.

Some analysts even suggest one way to avoid the effects of underage drinking is to not pick up your first drink until 25 when the brain is fully developed.

When it comes to your health in other ways, it's almost impossible to completely avoid toxins like preservatives in food or air pollution, but with this, you have a choice. 

"It's things like alcohol and drugs, pardon the pun, but it's sort-of a no-brainer." Dr. King said. "Those are things that we have direct control over and we decide whether or not we're going to expose ourselves to that."

The Prevention Coalition recently held a town hall meeting with local parents to help fight this problem. 

Prevention education in the classroom is a large tool as well. 

Despite numbers in teen drinking being down compared to past years, the same study found that 44 percent of Steuben County parents had a favorable attitude towards it.

For example, Kelly Campbell plead guilty to endangering the welfare of a child after she provided alcohol to adolescents at a party in 2013. William Warrick, who was 16, left that party and was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer on Interstate 86 in the Town of Campbell.

The Social Host Law in Steuben, which went into effect in 2015, holds people accountable for serving alcohol to minors making them face consequences. 

In 2007, four teenagers were found in the Jasper-Troupsburg 

In the end, the coalition largely credits one thing for its progress so far. 

"Just bringing about awareness about this, I think has a lot to do with the numbers going down," Norman McCumiskey, the program coordinator with the coalition, said. "Nationally, that's happening as well not just in Steuben County, but I think we have a lot to do with that and I'm pretty proud of that."

In addition to physical problems like hangovers and illnesses, the Centers for Disease Control says that alcohol consumption in youth also increases risky behaviors such as unwanted, unplanned, and unprotected sexual activity in addition to car crashes and other unintentional injuries, such as burns, falls, and drowning.


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