WASHINGTON – Underage drinking costs the nation $53 billion a year in traffic fatalities, violent crimes and other alcohol-driven behavior, according to a new report by the National Academy of Sciences.
The report, released Wednesday, said underage drinking is the nation’s largest youth-related drug problem, killing 6.5 times more youth than all illicit drugs combined.
While the report did not break out state-specific statistics, officials in Maryland agree that teen drinking is a problem here as well. Of teen traffic accidents in Maryland last year, for example, 20 percent involved alcohol, slightly below the national average of 24 percent, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“We have underage drinking going on all over the state of Maryland,” said Wendy Hamilton, the president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Hamilton was previously head of the Maryland chapter of MADD.
The report recommended several measures to combat the problem, including restrictions on alcohol advertising and increasing excise taxes for alcoholic beverages.
The recommendations drew heated opposition from alcohol industry officials, who said that raising taxes will only hurt consumers of legal age and will not curb underage drinking.
“We’re very disappointed they didn’t follow the intent of Congress,” in drafting the recommendations of the report, said Michelle Semones, spokeswoman for the National Beer Wholesalers Association. “There’s been no proof that increasing taxes will decrease underage alcohol consumption.”
The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States noted that the report itself pointed out the fact that most underage drinkers get alcohol from adults.
The report’s authors argued that not only will raising the price of alcohol lower the number of young drinkers, but that the increased revenue could also be used to fund initiatives aimed at curtailing teen drinking.
“There’s some controversial issues that the alcohol industry is focusing on,” Hamilton said of the call for higher taxes. “But we all have to take responsibility for this, including the alcohol industry.”
Maryland Delegate Bill Bronrott, D-Montgomery, praised the report’s recommendation for higher taxes. He said Maryland has the lowest liquor tax in the nation, and he hopes the state will raise the tax next year.
Bronrott, who sponsored unsuccessful legislation in this year’s General Assembly to raise the state’s alcohol tax, said he plans to re-introduce the bill in the next legislature.
Hamilton agreed with Bronrott that higher taxes would help.
“This is one of the pieces in the puzzle that will help make a better and safer community for everybody,” she said. “It’s important to understand that, in America, a lot of people drink alcohol. We just want to make sure it stays out of the hands of our kids until they’re 21.”