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The Young Face of Underage Drinking
Alexander Mirabella, Vice Chairman
Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders

Though underage drinking is strongly associated with high school and college parties, many young people start drinking much earlier, and many drink alone. In New Jersey, the first use of alcohol occurs, on average, at age eleven. This complicates the picture for parents and Union County residents who are working together to prevent alcohol abuse.

Childhood drinking was discussed two years ago at a Town Hall meeting sponsored by Prevention Links and the Union County Coalition for the Prevention of Substance Abuse. Recently I attended another Town Hall event, and I would like to share with you some of the information we discussed.

One important change is the tougher laws aimed at adults who throw parties for underage drinkers. The penalties are stiff. Adult hosts are subject to a fine of $1,000 and up to 180 days in jail for every underage person they serve.

If a drinking-related injury or death occurs, the host faces criminal penalties of up to $15,000 and five years in state prison. The host may also face a financially crippling civil lawsuit. This can go a long way to deter adults from hosting a drinking party for high school students or anyone else under age 21.

However, as we have learned, this kind of partying is only one aspect of the problem. Many underage drinkers start long before high school.

The youngest drinkers are likely to sneak drinks from bottles left casually around the house. They are also exposed to positive messages about alcohol throughout our culture, including wedding celebrations and other family gatherings, street fairs and festivals, block parties, and professional sporting events.

The most important thing I learned at this year’s Town Hall meeting came from two panelists who attend Governor Livingston High School in Berkeley Heights. While parents should set clear household rules about drinking, these students advised parents to recognize the powerful messages that children receive from a very
young age.

When talking to your children about drinking, these students said, it’s important to balance your expectations with reality.

Alcohol is pervasive in our culture, and a night out with friends can quickly turn into something unintended. If it does, your children should be able to call on you for support. Let them know that you will always be available to help out in case of trouble.

Along with the students, the panelists and attendees at this year’s Town Hall meeting included a large number of parents, educators, and law enforcement officials representing municipal and Union County government. By continuing to work together and share information as a community, we can help our families, friends and neighbors prevent underage drinking.

For more information about substance abuse education in Union County, visit Prevention Links at