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By James Baker

It’s time to include teen and college drinking in our national dialogues on surprisingly related tops. And it’s time for us all to take a good, long look at the harms and lifelong impact it can have on early drinkers.

Just ask Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford. Ask Senators. Ask the American people.

Underage drinking is not OK. It is not a rite of passage that can be chalked up to youthful indiscretion. Never has this been more obvious than now as we Americans are caught up in selecting a Supreme Court justice. It’s also something society doesn’t talk about very much, but now our noses are being shoved into it. Maybe we can make some course corrections.

The human brain is still growing until about age 25 and this is especially true in the cerebral region that makes decisions. Any negative influence on this development can have lasting effects. Kids drink because they think it’s cool. They drink because it feels good, lowers the barriers to sexual activity, because the other kids are doing it and because they see their parents, who have fully grown adult brains, do it.

More than 33 percent of 15-year-olds reported that they have had at least one drink in their lives and about 7.7 million people ages 12–20 reported drinking alcohol in the past month, according to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. More than five million people ages 12-20 reported in the same study binge drinking in the past month.

Some parents supply their kids with alcohol with the promise of drinking at home to be safe. Alternatively, they turn a blind eye and leave the kids at home without adult supervision knowing full well that the fridge is stocked with beer or the cabinet is full of booze. Other youths have fake IDs and go out to bars and clubs. Still more young people ask their older friends to buy for them. Fraternity parties are another option for some college youths.

Those are all opportunities for bad things to happen. Kids who have no or very little experience with or tolerance for alcohol get busy bingeing. No attention is paid to what this might mean for their futures, the futures of their friends, what harm it may be causing to their bodies, or what bad decisions they might be about to make.

In high school, Judge Kavanaugh liked beer. He drank beer. He still likes beer. He still drinks beer. He told the Senate Judiciary Committee as much during his job interview. To be clear, this message is not about whether Judge Kavanaugh is fit for the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s about the taboo subject of teen and college drinking and the affects it can have on the drinker’s life.

It’s time to take off the blinders and include this topic in our conversations, including the current national dialogue around Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination and confirmation.

Teen and college drinking are part of the American fabric. Many say it’s normal, even harmless. Go to college, experiment with alcohol, hang out at fraternity and sorority parties, take part in some hazing, have sex, binge drink, pass out, wake up the next morning with a headache, nausea, cotton mouth and no memory of what happened the night before. Rinse. Repeat.

By not talking about it in serious ways, we also don’t stop to realize the risks and the long-term fallout. Teen and college binge drinking can lead to an increased danger of drunk driving crashes, alcoholism, unwanted pregnancy, HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, domestic violence, sexual assaults, cancer, liver disease, anger issues, fighting and memory lapses.

As we’ve learned in recent weeks, problems stemming from teen and college drinking can even reach the highest levels of American leadership decades later.

So, yes, now is the time to include drinking in the conversation. This topic does not amount to the whole dialogue we are having, but it needs to be upgraded into the mainstream discussion, now and always.

James Baker is founder and CEO of San Diego-based Institute for Public Strategies, a nonprofit focused on alcohol and other drug problem prevention among youth.

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