Report cites porous state laws on alcohol, underage drinking Novello urges penalties for sellers, youths.


WASHINGTON -- A federal study released today said state laws prohibiting underage drinking are fraught with loopholes and loosely enforced.

Although Congress in 1984 required all states to raise the minimum purchase and possession age to 21, that hasn't kept youths from drinking, according to the study by the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services.

"State laws, we have discovered, are riddled with loopholes, laxity and lip service," Surgeon General Antonia C. Novello said at a news conference. "The result is that two-thirds of the teen-agers who drink -- and that's almost 7 million boys and girls -- get their booze the easy way."

No alcohol vendor has ever lost his license solely for selling to minors, Novello said. Urging that sellers and youths be held responsible, she recommended that youths caught breaking alcohol laws be forced to do community service and automatically lose their driving licenses.

The parents of Brian Ball, the 15-year-old Texas boy who died following a drinking party in Salisbury, Md., a month ago, pleaded at the news conference for tougher laws and enforcement. They also called on the news media, schools and parents to do a better job of informing kids about the dangers of drinking.

"Please help other families from having to worry about memorial plaques to their son's memory," Ball said, breaking into tears as he held up a plaque for his son.

The Balls said they're generally pleased with the ongoing police investigation of the circumstances of his death. They said they still don't know how much he drank, but believe that a reported estimate of 26 shots of vodka is too high.

Health and Human Services officials said no state is a model in terms of how it deals with underage drinking, but some are better than others. The study highlighted the following loopholes in state laws:

* In five states and the District of Columbia, it is not specifically illegal for minors to purchase alcoholic beverages. Maryland is not one of them. "By not having specific prohibitions, these states in effect do not discourage minors from 'shopping' for a vendor or a store that doesn't ask for an I.D.," Novello said.

* Thirty-eight states permit exceptions to underage drinking prohibitions, allowing drinking for religious purposes; in private homes and clubs; for medicinal purposes; when accompanied by a spouse or legal guardian; or "in the course of lawful employment."

In Maryland, people under 21 may drink legally only as part of a religious ceremony or in their own homes, consuming alcohol furnished by their parents. Parents may not provide alcohol to other children, however. "The exception for private residences has, of course, led to the frequently used loophole of teen 'kegger' and 'all-you-can-drink' parties," Novello said. But she said she would not urge states to prohibit youths from drinking at home. "I think that would be getting too Prohibitionist."

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