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Health & Parenting

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15 Shots Killed Shelby Allen

What's perhaps more shocking is that the 17-year-old drank them at a friend's house, while the parents were home. Here, how her mom is fighting to make sure no other child dies this way

A Deadly Rite of Passage

That's a hard message to get across when teen drinking persists as the great American rite of passage. Consider how it's depicted in movies: From Sixteen Candles (released in 1984) to Superbad (2007) and beyond, underage drinking has provided decades of coming-of-age-flick entertainment. Generations have giggled over buckets of popcorn as teenagers have vomited on each other, passed out, woken up in strange beds, and seduced one another's best friends, girlfriends, and even parents, only to arrive at the morning after with a hangover, some wild experiences, skyrocketing popularity, and a valuable life lesson learned to boot.

That's the Hollywood version. In real life, the results are too often tragic. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), more than 500 underage drinkers are rushed to ERs in a typical day, and about 5,000 people under 21 die annually of alcohol-related injuries - a number, experts are quick to point out, that is likely to be low because of underreporting.

There's a simple reason why underage drinkers are so likely to be injured or to die: "Kids drink to get drunk," says Frances M. Harding, director of SAMHSA's Center for Substance Abuse Prevention. "They're not having a glass of wine with a meal and enjoying the conversation. They're drinking five drinks or more when they're binge drinking." The landmark College Alcohol Study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health (a 14-year endeavor involving four national surveys) found that the drinking style of many college students was "one of excess and intoxication." One in five students was a frequent binge drinker, and this group of students consumed three-quarters of the alcohol that all college students drank.

Technically defined as consuming five or more drinks on a single occasion for males and four or more drinks for females, binge drinking can have a devastating impact. "We are prosecuting teenagers who otherwise seem to be good kids for serious crimes all the time, from robberies to rape, and I have to say about 90 percent of these involve alcohol," reports Todd Spitzer, a 20-year law-enforcement veteran (he's been a police officer and a prosecutor) and former state assemblyman who authored a California law enacting tougher penalties for underage DUI offenders. "Kids just do really stupid things when they drink, because their judgment is impaired."

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