Far too many young people in Oklahoma are being introduced to alcohol these days. Some 44 percent of Oklahoma high school students say they have had one or more drinks in the last month, while 30 percent report having engaged in binge drinking -- having five or more alcoholic beverages within a couple of hours -- according to Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

Underage drinking often leads to alcohol problems in later life. Of people from northwest Oklahoma seeking treatment through DMHSAS, 41 percent said alcohol was their drug of choice. Nearly half that number reported taking their first drink before their 17th birthday, while 18 percent began using alcohol between the ages of 11 and 13.

Clearly something needs to be done.

This week, state Attorney General Drew Edmondson began a statewide campaign against underage drinking.

The initiative -- dubbed Ask, Listen, Learn: Kids and Alcohol Don't Mix -- is being conducted nationwide in conjunction with Nickelodeon, a children's cable television network, and the Century Council, an organization working to combat drunk driving and underage drinking.

The state campaign, introduced by Edmondson earlier this week at Western Oaks Middle School in Bethany, is aimed at children ages 9-12.

We applaud the AG for taking this first step, but changing the culture of underage drinking will take some time. Statistics show the average Oklahoma teenager begins drinking around age 15.

But it's not just the teens we have to convince about the hazards of underage drinking. Recently a Kay County attorney and Newkirk school board member admitted letting minors drink beer at a keg party he hosted last month.

James Schaeffer pleaded guilty to serving alcohol to minors and was given three years probation and a $1,500 fine. He also said he is resigning his school board post.

Sean Byrne, executive director of PreventionWorkz, an area resource center for alcohol, tobacco and other drug use prevention and education, said teens are twice as likely to binge drink and use alcohol within 30 days if they have attended an adult-sponsored party.

Parents who believe they are providing a "safe" environment, he said, may be introducing teens to addiction. Far too often, he said, adults shrug off teen drinking by saying, "kids will be kids."

Prevention of underage drinking must begin not with teenagers but with their parents. It is incumbent upon parents to teach their children about the dangers of alcohol, not to encourage or simply ignore them.

Kids will be kids, all right, but for their health and safety it is vital they remain alcohol-free kids.

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