SPECIAL REPORT: Underage drinking presents problems for teens

SPECIAL REPORT: Underage Drinking
Published: Nov. 17, 2016 at 4:52 AM EST|Updated: Nov. 17, 2016 at 4:32 PM EST
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COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) - Underage drinking is a growing problem in communities across the country, and parents may not know how easily their teenagers can purchase or drink alcohol.

The consequences can be deadly, especially recently for one Columbus teenager. Investigators have said alcohol played a significant role in JP Johanson's accidental death.

The temptation to have a drink is in every community in the country.

At bars, restaurants, or clubs, adults can easily grab a glass – but what parents may not know is their kids could also have access to alcohol, and at younger and younger ages.

In a survey done by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, more than 7 million young people ages 12-20 reported they drank alcohol "beyond just a few sips" in past months.

More alarming, according to research more than 5 million kids reported binge drinking, which means boys and girls drank at least four or more drinks within an hour – at least once in a month.

The consequences of binge drinking have brought recent tragedy to one Columbus family.

On a late September Sunday, JP Johanson was driving with friends along River Road.

Officials arrived on the scene and found the 15-year-old Northside High student lying on the street – dead from blunt force trauma after he was run over.

Results from a toxicology report done by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation revealed Johanson had a blood alcohol level, or BAC, of .224 percent – three times the legal limit.

At this point, five teenagers have been arrested in connection with Johanson's death.

One teenager, 17-year-old Giovanni Montescarlos, has been accused of buying alcohol with a fake ID and providing minors, including Johanson, with the alcohol.

This news upset Dr. Rebecca Reamy, medical director of the Pediatric Emergency Department at Midtown Medical Center, who lives near the scene of the teen's death.

"It's horrible, up the direction I live," Dr. Reamy said. "It affects you personally more when you can say, 'Oh, that was a kid who could've gone to school with my kids,' and how his friends must have felt."

We sat down with Dr. Reamy and asked questions about the medical effects alcohol can have on a teenager's body, particularly, how it affects the brain.

The first question: what happens when a teenager, in this case a 15 or 16-year-old, begins to binge drink?

"First of all, the frontal lobe is not developed fully in for example, a 16-year old," Dr. Reamy said. "Your frontal lobe is what's responsible for your judgment. So, we kind of joke about how teenagers are already impaired from a decision-making standpoint and it's not really a joke. It's really true – teenagers don't have good decision making skills. If you impart that by introducing alcohol, it makes that even worse."

Next question: Which motor functions are affected when teens drink heavily?

"It can affect attention, concentration, motor coordination, balance, reaction time," Dr. Reamy said. "Initially, it can give the person a feeling of exhilaration, which unfortunately, makes them at risk for personal injury or property damage. But with increasing levels of intoxication, they're going to have problems with walking, and they can become irritable and even combative – then of course, a coma and even death can occur if enough alcohol is consumed."

One more question: Is there an appropriate age for a person to start drinking and drinking larger amounts?

"Never – that's a great question, never," Dr. Reamy said. "Long-term, excessive alcohol consumption is bad for any age person. It causes decreasing fine-motor skills, such as memory and coordination, even for someone that's not drunk at that time, overconsumption of alcohol causes detrimental effects to every organ system in the body."

In some cases, teenagers in Columbus have already faced legal trouble for wanting to drink.

That's where people like Elijah Morish of New Horizons' Project Change come in, and work to change their dependence on other substances, and say no to outside pressures brought on by the social environment in schools.

"Peer pressure; 'Come on man! Do it!' Most of these kids… I'd say more than half wouldn't even do drugs unless somebody pushed it on them," Morish said.

But adolescents don't just face these pressures on a personal level among friends – they can come from inside a TV or movie screen.

When asked if movies, TV and popular media have a contributing factor to the growth of underage drinking, Morish says, in no ambiguous terms, "without a shadow of a doubt."

With all that exposure, Morish says it's hard not to see kids feeling the need to act like their role models.

"But when you grow up in an environment like that, you get desensitized to it," Morish said. "'Drugs and alcohol? Everybody drinks. This is the way we do things around here.' You start buying into that, but it's a two-edged sword, because as you do it, some people say, 'I do social drinking.' Some people can't socially drink, and as they drink, drink, drink – before you know it, they got a problem."

That's why Morish works with a group of 30 kids at the Project Change Clubhouse, providing a healthy and productive outlet for the young adults, while also working to assure parents that there's still time for teenagers to learn from these mistakes.

By the time they get to me, parents are like, 'I'm going to let him get locked up.' I'm like, 'No, no, no. Remember, he's only 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 years old.  These are children," Morish said. "I tell parents, 'He's only been here 13 years on planet Earth.' How'd he get this bad? It's what he sees. Everybody knows kids emulate what they see. That same baby they saw – you've got your baby or your infant and you're saying all these good things about them, all those things are still true."

Because young minds are still developing, Dr. Reamy says it's important for both parents and schools to have a real conversation with middle and high school students about the dangers and consequences of underage drinking.

"Definitely before high school," Dr. Reamy said. "Like I said, we know that there are kids in middle school who are drinking. Hopefully, the initial awareness is brought up at home. But I would hope it's reinforced in the schools."

Dr. Reamy also stresses the role parents should have in teaching their teens about the dangers that come from binge drinking – that means having regular conversations with kids about their social lives.

Morish plans to use a state grant Project Clubhouse receives and reach out to even more kids dealing with substance abuse in the Chattahoochee Valley.

Any concerned parents who fear their child has already had alcohol, these links are resources listing the warning signs of underage drinking.

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