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Hospitals brace for underage drinkers

ER visits nearly double over July 4 holiday

By Kay Lazar
Globe Staff / July 3, 2010

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Grim warnings about underage drinking typically go out around prom and graduation season, but a new government report finds that the Fourth of July weekend also packs a potent mix of youth and booze.

Alcohol-related hospital emergency room visits involving patients under age 21 nearly double over the long holiday weekend, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The agency found that, compared with an average July day, daily underage-drinking visits to the ER nationwide shot up 87 percent over the July Fourth weekend in 2008, when the holiday fell on a Friday, making for a three-day weekend.

The agency did not measure ER traffic among underage drinkers when the holiday fell during the week, and it has not yet completed its analysis of last year’s data, when the fourth fell on a Saturday.

But ER chiefs in Greater Boston say the government’s 2008 findings do not surprise them. They, too, have witnessed a jump in the number of intoxicated minors when the Fourth falls on a three-day weekend, and they say they are ready for this year’s onslaught.

“Most teenagers, especially younger teenagers, don’t tolerate alcohol very well,’’ said Dr. John Benanti, chief of emergency medicine at South Shore Hospital. “They are not used to it, and they end up getting injured.’’

Benanti was unable to say precisely how many inebriated young patients they treated over the long holiday weekend last year, but he said he believes the Weymouth-based facility, which has one of the busiest ERs south of Boston, sees more drunk youngsters over the Fourth of July than during prom season.

“Many times parents are stunned and surprised about what happened,’’ said Benanti, who has had the unenviable task of informing parents.

“It’s a very difficult conversation with parents who didn’t have a clue about what is happening,’’ he said.

David DeIuliis, interim state director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said his nonprofit gears much of its message about underage drinking to adults because they play a pivotal role.

“I think a lot of adults view drinking as a rite of passage, and that tends to be part of the problem,’’ DeIuliis said. “I don’t think many adults associate it with some of the tragic or long-term consequences. They say: ‘I made it through. What’s the big deal?’ ’’

Dr. Christopher Rosenbaum, an ER physician at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester who specializes in treating overdoses, said his “ridiculously busy’’ emergency room is likely to be swamped this weekend with drunken teens.

“Alcohol kills inhibition and you start doing stupid stuff,’’ Rosenbaum said. “People focus on drunk driving, but it’s everything. It’s being out late and trying drugs for the first time, putting yourself at risk for sexual assault, getting robbed, or getting hit by a car on your way home.’’

At Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, alcohol-related cases in the ER involving people under 21 jumped 20 percent during the past two July Fourth holiday weekends, and that did not include all of those injured in drunken driving accidents, said Dr. Alasdair Conn, chief of emergency services. He expects this weekend to be just as busy.

Conn said one reason behind the spike is that minors are more likely than adults to engage in binge drinking, downing five or more alcoholic beverages at a time.

And it’s not just quantity, but also the substance, said David Jernigan, director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Johns Hopkins University. In recent years, teens, particularly females, have shifted away from beer and toward hard liquor, which can be eight times more potent, Jernigan said.

The shift, he said, mirrors a sea change by advertisers to market these products particularly to young women. Especially popular are “alcopops,’’ alcohol sweetened by fruit juice or other flavorings and typically sold in cans the size of sodas.

“This,’’ said Jernigan, “is a trend that is a great concern.’’

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com.

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