PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — In Aroostook County earlier this month, the dangers of underage drinking and binge drinking were highlighted after four Presque Isle-area teenagers needed medical treatment for suspected alcohol poisoning and other ailments after holiday parties.
One teenager was so intoxicated that he was found passed out facedown in the snow and had to be treated for frostbite.
Alcohol remains the most often used substance among youth in Maine, according to the state Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services. A recent report, Substance Abuse Trends in Maine State Epidemiological Profile 2012, indicated that just over one quarter of high school students in the state reported consuming alcohol in the previous month. That number has declined steadily since 2001 and dropped significantly between 2005 and 2011.
And while the rate of reported high-risk “binge” alcohol use among high school students also has been decreasing, that same substance abuse profile showed that close to one in five high school students still reported engaging in binge alcohol use during the previous month.
“We sometimes find out about teens who have been binge drinking when they end up in the hospital for alcohol poisoning,” Caribou Police Chief Michael Gahagan said during a recent interview. “You have a 14- or 15-year-old kid in the emergency room with frightened parents, and their child is so drunk that they can’t tell you where they were or who furnished the alcohol to them. And many of them still don’t seem to grasp all of the risks that are involved with abusing alcohol. Its frustrating and scary.”
Binge drinking is generally defined as four or more drinks for women and five or more for men over a period of a few hours. Youth are more likely than adults to engage in binge drinking, according to OSAMHS, and such high-risk alcohol use has been linked to serious injury, fights, motor vehicles crashes, suicides, falls and more.
Statewide in 2009, 19 percent of high school students reported they had five or more drinks in a row at least once in the previous month, according to the substance abuse profile. In 2011, that number dropped to 17 percent. Among those ages 18-20, binge drinking also decreased between 2008 and 2009, from 23 percent to 12 percent.
Capt. Josh Ewing of the Orono Police Department said that he believes that binge drinking is less of a problem for the community as a whole than in the past due to a combination of education, action and enforcement.
Ewing said that police used to deal with numerous issues, from alcohol poisoning to accidents to injuries, primarily among young college students. Over the past decade, however, police have been able to secure grants and have tapped into other funding to conduct broader alcohol enforcement details. In 2004, Orono also enacted a disruptive property ordinance that has prevented loud parties and disorderly conduct from becoming regular occurrences.
“I think that has helped tremendously, because we have seen far fewer parties where you have lots of alcohol and peer pressure with people encouraging others to drink more,” he said. “Colleges also are doing a lot more to educate students about the dangers of abusing alcohol and binge drinking and have been working to keep alcohol out of the hands of students too young to have it. I am not saying that it’s not going on here, but I definitely think that it is better than it once was.”
Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety, said that the way that state police approach alcohol and minors has changed dramatically over the years.
“If we find out kids have been drinking, we call their parents, we charge them for possessing it or consuming it and we charge the person who furnished it,” he said late last week. “There are no breaks, there is no chance of being let off with a warning. That type of thing is taken very seriously now.”
McCausland said that police often see binge drinking at parties hosted by college students. Police have seen similar cases at end of the school year and summer parties held by teens at area camps or in other secluded locations.
In Caribou, Chief Gahagan said that grant money secured by the department or by agencies that the department collaborates with has helped them combat underage drinking while also educating youth about the dangers of abusing alcohol and binge drinking. They have also used such funding to crack down on businesses who sell alcohol to minors. Gahagan said that the department keeps track of the ages of youth charged with alcohol violations and the nature of the charges in order to use the information to bring in more state and federal grant funding.
“I think that education is really half the battle,” he said. “It is something that we always have to be doing, at home and at school and as police. That can never stop.”