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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, June 2, 2006

City targets young drinkers

By Rod Ohira
Advertiser Staff Writer

With graduation parties under way, the Honolulu Liquor Commission and the Honolulu Police Department yesterday launched a 24-hour underage drinking hot line.

Callers are encouraged to report party plans that involve serving alcohol to individuals under age 21; businesses selling alcohol to underage customers; and incidents of underage drinking in public places.

Noting recent investigations that resulted in a "mom-and-pop store" owner in Central O'ahu being cited twice for selling liquor to children, ages 8 to 10, Honolulu Liquor Commission executive director Dewey Kim said Hawai'i residents need to step up monitoring of the state law pertaining to the minimum drinking age.

In 1986, Hawai'i raised its legal minimum drinking age from 18 to 21 in an effort to reduce traffic deaths and avoid losing federal highway money. Two decades later, Hawai'i is above the national average in several categories of underage drinking, including prevalence rates and number of children who admitted to being drunk at least once.

Regarding incidents where some businesses and families disregard the law, Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona said, "It's been occurring for a long period of time and it's become acceptable."

"But that doesn't mean it's right or it's the right thing to do," Aiona added. "It's not OK and it's against the law."

Aiona attended a news conference at the state Capitol yesterday at which officials announced that complaints may be reported to the 24-hour hot line, 523-4194. Reports of ongoing sales or drinking by minors in an area should be reported to the Liquor Commission hot line, while anyone reporting underage drinking offenses which require immediate attention, such as a party, should call 911. Police and Liquor Commission investigators will be sharing information.

Maj. Bart Huber, commander of the Honolulu Police Department's Juvenile Services Division, said parents or adult friends who make alcohol accessible to minors, especially for parties, need to change their attitude.

"It's hard to send the message that drinking at 17, 18 or 19 is not accepted anymore," Huber said. "Parents who think today that they can supervise the drinking and protect their child don't understand the damage they're doing by allowing their child to do something illegal and harmful. They can't control what their child or other children will do when they leave the house.

"We have to break the mold and let kids know it's not accepted practice and if parents say no, they're doing the right thing. It's an activity that should not be accepted."

There are criminal and civil penalties for individuals who provide liquor as well as for minors in possession of alcohol.

"Liability is the biggest issue they should be afraid of," Huber said, referring to adults supplying alcohol. "If you make the choice to allow a group of individuals you hardly know to drink in your house and leave, you might as well roll the dice on whether the house you own will belong to you in the future because if they get into an accident and somebody gets hurt, it comes back to where they got the alcohol from."

First-time offender penalties for possession of alcohol currently range from counseling to fines and jail time. But after Gov. Linda Lingle signs the Use and Lose It bill into law, the penalties will be tougher, beginning in January.

It will then be mandatory that any juvenile convicted for either possessing, consuming or purchasing alcohol will have their driver's license suspended for 180 days in addition to sentencing imposed by a judge, Aiona said. That includes arrests made anywhere not only in vehicles and includes passengers in a car. An offender who does not have driver's license will have to wait until age 17 to obtain one.

Kim added the Liquor Commission is moving toward suspending liquor-sales licenses of businesses that repeatedly are cited for selling liquor to minors. Some stores on O'ahu have been doing it for 20 years, he said.

"We need to stop the behavior on a number of levels the community," Kim said. "If they are doing something which is illegal, they need to know they can't do it anymore even though they could do it before.

"We are saying: 'No, you can't do that, period,' and there's a line now you can't cross."

Kim said the Liquor Commission has been exploring the use of machines that can swipe driver's license to determine age for use at convenience stores. If a minor is involved, the machine would automatically lock the register to prevent a sale.

Fifteen of O'ahu's 78 traffic deaths in 2005 were alcohol related, according to Honolulu police statistics. Of the 15 deaths, one involved the operator of a motorcycle who was a minor.

End Needless Death on Our Roadways, a Chicago-based traffic safety advocacy group, has listed Hawai'i two straight years on its 15 deadliest states for impaired driving list.

Reach Rod Ohira at rohira@honoluluadvertiser.com.