By Karen Pershing, Executive Director

The recent University of Tennessee alcohol incident has certainly received a lot of attention. Underage drinking is a topic that should not only be on our radar screens when we hear of a near fatal outcome, but should be of concern to us on a regular basis.

Alcohol remains the “drug of choice” for both teens and young adults. However, many adults in our community not only accept but encourage the behavior. Some turn a blind eye while others may even provide the alcohol themselves.

According to the 2011 Knox County Youth Risk Behavior Survey,19.3 percent of Knox County public high school students admitted to binge drinking thirty days prior to the survey. That’s one out of every five. However, we have seen a 54 percent decrease in the number of teens drinking and driving since 1991.

The message to not drink and drive has been very effective. What our community has failed to communicate is a zero tolerance attitude towards underage consumption. Unless there is an injury or death, we tend to think as long as they are doing it “safely” there’s no harm. After all, it’s just a “rite of passage.”

Many young people have latched on to the “responsible drinking” message, but a clear definition has never been articulated. Just what is responsible drinking? Without a clear definition, it is up to the individual to define what it means. A young person’s brain does not have the capacity to make those decisions.

The brain is not fully mature until a person’s early to mid twenties. The prefrontal cortex, referred to as the “CEO of the brain,” is the last portion to develop. This brain region is responsible for considering consequences and making good judgments. Even if teens understand the danger, they may still go ahead and take the risk.

Our community should be thankful that this incident didn’t end in tragedy. This young man came close to losing his life to alcohol poisoning. We should be sending a message that underage drinking is not acceptable, whether it is a high school or young college student.  Binge drinking at any age is unhealthy and dangerous.

As adults, we set the standard.  It is not only a legal issue but a moral one.  Who among us wants to be the person who gets the 2 a.m. phone call saying your child has been injured or will never return home? It’s time we accept our responsibility to set clear community standards to keep our young people safe.