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Underage drinking leads to tragedy

It’s sad to have to report the death of a teenager due to alcohol. By now, most local residents have heard the tragic story of 18-year-old Francisco Martinez, whose life was snuffed out just 20 minutes into the new year when he was hit by a car on a rural road.

According to reports, the victim had already had too much to drink when he — and dozens of other young people — tried to crash a private New Year’s Eve party being held in a barn off Adobe Road.

The young man, who had arrived at the party by taxi, left the scene with his girlfriend and other teens. A short time later, about a mile away from the party, the youth stumbled and rolled into the path of a car on Adobe Road.

Many questions remain unanswered about the party, and it hasn’t been determined whether the property owner will be held partly responsible for the death or be fined for illegally running a club where alcohol is served. He says he did not know the young man who died, that he did not serve him alcohol and that he told all of the uninvited young people to leave.

The location of the fateful New Year’s Eve party was outside city limits, which means that the city’s social host ordinance adopted in 2006 did not apply. That ordinance levies fines or jail time for adults who allow underage drinking in their homes. It was enacted to help combat what public health advocates say is an unusually high rate of underage drinking in Petaluma.

Petaluma has a culture of drinking alcohol dating back many years, if not generations. Recent studies show that local high school students drink alcohol more frequently and engage in binge drinking more often than their counterparts in the rest of the state, a trend that puts them at much greater risk of becoming victims of vehicular accidents, sexual assaults and alcohol poisoning, as well as a host of other health and safety problems relating to underage drinking. Martinez is only the latest victim of this unfortunate trend.

According to a 2007 survey, 33 percent of Petaluma’s high school freshmen and a whopping 52 percent of high school juniors reported drinking alcohol in the previous 30 days. One of the most alarming trends among Petaluma’s teenagers is the widespread amount of binge drinking — consuming five or more drinks in a couple of hours.

Also alarming, according to the survey, is the major role played by irresponsible adults who encourage or condone drinking by teens. Many teens drink alcohol with the consent of their own parents or other adults — often in their own homes or friends’ homes where adults are present.

Petaluma police, school officials and community groups such as the Petaluma Coalition to Prevent Under-age & High-Risk Drinking are working to deal with this problem. For too long, society has looked upon teenage drinking as something like a rite of passage — something every kid experimented with. But the more we learn about teens and alcohol consumption, the more frightening it becomes.

Each year, approximately 5,000 young people under the age of 21 die nationwide in alcohol-related deaths. This includes 1,900 deaths from motor vehicle crashes, 1,600 as a result of homicides and 300 from suicide. Thousands more are injured from risky behavior related to alcohol abuse, and Francisco Martinez is one of the latest statistics.

With a new year starting, it is a good time for Petaluma’s adults to recommit themselves to ensuring that the community is a safe and happy place for young people. Adults shouldn’t have to be forced into helping curtail teen drinking, but for those who either aid or ignore such destructive behavior by our young people, there will be consequences.

The latest tragedy adds another number to the statistics of alcohol-related deaths. It serves as another stark reminder of the dangers of over-consumption.

source:  Petaluma Argus-Courier

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