The city of Manhattan Beach surpasses the national average by a number of measures — top-ranked school district, household income, real estate value — but they’re not all gleaming trophies.
According to a 2012 county survey, 53 percent of Manhattan Beach youth between ages 12 and 17 admitted to consuming alcohol in the past month, exceeding the national average of 39 percent. One in four admitted to binge-drinking, and 52 percent admittedly rode in a car with someone who had consumed alcohol, nearly double the national average.
A new campaign is underway across the Beach Cities, beginning in Manhattan Beach, to combat these statistics. Various community groups are making an allegiance under the guidance of Behavioral Health Services, a nonprofit contracted last year by the L.A. County Department of Public Health, Substance Abuse Prevention and Control, to take a stand as advocates against teen drinking.
“Underage drinking is a community problem that needs a community solution,” BHS’s prevention project coordinator Lorraine Dillard said a press conference Tuesday morning at the Beach Cities Health District’s Adventureplex in Manhattan Beach.
The event culminated in a group photo-op that symbolically marked some 40 participants — from Manhattan Beach Unified School District’s resource officers to several Mira Costa students — as “part of the picture” to support the prevention of underage drinking. The photo establishes the beginning of a 18-month effort to raise public awareness about the wide yet hidden presence of underage drinking in the Beach Cities and what community members can do about it.
“In the end, parents have the most powerful effect,” said Mike Ballue, executive director of the National Council on Alcoholism & Drug Dependence in the South Bay. “Parents in this community need to decide to protect their children better.”
Dr. Ian Kramer, a Manhattan Beach father who has practiced emergency medicine for 40 years, recently treated two underage drinkers in Whittier — ages 11 and 13 — for alcohol poisoning, both near-death cases. The two had consumed Four Lokos, Dr. Kramer explained, notorious alcoholic energy drinks popular among youth.
With peer pressure and no shortage of access, he noted that the average age of alcohol abusers is declining. And with the advent of neuro-imaging, MRIs and brain research, we now know exactly how alcohol consumption impacts the trajectory of an adolescent’s intellectual growth, he said.
“While the brain reaches 90 percent of its size at age 6, we now know that intellectual brain development continues on until 25,” Dr. Kramer explained. “We also know that adolescence is a time of challenges and it’s a time when the brain is undergoing some of the most extensive transitions.”
The prefrontal cortex, the brain’s executive decision-making controller, is “developing heavily during adolescence,” he explained, a time when decision-making is largely driven by novelty-seeking, risk-taking and peer pressure. Plus, developing brains are more vulnerable to the neurotoxic effects of alcohol, he said, which include declines in memory, attention and decision-making later as adults.
Brian Chao, a Mira Costa junior, spoke on behalf of his PACE classmates, a group of students spearheading educational efforts on campus to raise awareness about alcohol and drug abuse. Last year, PACE anonymously surveyed a group of students in each grade about their use of alcohol and drugs, and the results were “actually shocking,” Chao said.
A “significant number” admitted to use, about 65 percent of them to alcohol, he said, with reasons varying from social pressure to depression from family issues, he said. Plus, he added, social media is a “huge proponent in precipitating drug or alcohol use” among his peers.
He encouraged the campaign to inform both students and parents about the short-term and long-term effects of early-age alcohol consumption.
“A lot of parents don’t know that their kids are involved,” Chao said.
To prevent common alcohol-related incidents involving minors, such as drunk-driving, assaults or alcohol-poisoning, Hermosa Beach Police Chief Sharon Papa encouraged to Manhattan Beach’s social host ordinance, under which law enforcement can cite juveniles and their parents for underage drinking at a gathering, for a first-offense fine of $1,000.
“I’ve seen a lot in my 34 years of law enforcement, and nobody thinks it’s gonna happen to them until it does,” Papa said. “…And not a parent out there thinks it’s gonna be their kids, but it happens. It’s a reality check, it does happen in the South Bay.”