In South Carolina, 43 percent of high school students drink, 25 percent binge drink (five or more drinks in one sitting), and 25 percent take their first drink before age 13, according to the state Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services.
Parent and Mount Pleasant lawyer Vernon Glenn says underage drinking is an epidemic, but there is a cure.
"If parents would just put their foot down, a lot of it would stop," he says.
Sometimes parents themselves provide alcohol or allow it to be consumed, especially at prom and graduation parties.
"Some parents think kids are safer if they are allowed to drink in the house," Cowell says.
Last September, the S.C. Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services adopted an Ohio campaign called "Parents Who Host, Lose the Most" to increase understanding of and compliance with state drinking laws.
"Too often, parents look the other way when it comes to teen drinking, assuming it is a 'rite of passage.' It is not unusual for well-meaning parents to provide alcohol to their teen's friends at home parties. We want to educate parents that providing alcohol to teens is illegal and irresponsible," said W. Lee Catoe, director of the state abuse services unit, when announcing the campaign.
The campaign highlights the fact that parents can receive a 30-day jail sentence and $1,075 in fines and fees for giving alcohol to other parents' children, and that parents can be sued if a teen hurts someone, hurts himself or damages property after being allowed to drink.
"It's just unbelievable, the number of adults that will sanction underage drinking," says Glenn. "Parents will rent their underage children big beach houses and let them have parties. Then they are amazed when the cops show up. People just don't get it."
In the dark
The flip side of the parents who condone drinking is the parents who have no clue it's going on.
Of 12- to 18-year-olds, 44 percent who reported drinking in the past year were described by their parents as nondrinkers, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Many kids admit sneaking alcohol from their parents, having older friends buy it or getting it at parties.
In 2007, 62 percent of eighth-graders reported that alcohol is "very easy" or "fairly easy" to get, and 82.6 percent of 10th-graders and 92.2 percent of 12th-graders agreed.
Most parents think their children are pressured into drinking, but the kids say they drink because it feels good (79 percent), helps them forget problems (67 percent), others do it (66 percent) and there's nothing else to do (47 percent), according to MADD.
Additionally, some alcohol companies lure in young children by aiming their products toward them, experts say.
"The one negative component about drinking used to be taste," Stinson says. "But now there are all these drinks that have no alcohol taste."
Commonly called "alcopops," these drinks are bubbly and fruit-flavored and resemble soft drinks, but contain about the same amount of alcohol as beer.
"Everybody has figured out that young people love the sweet stuff," Glenn says. "They dress it up to make it more palatable and more desirable to kids. It's socially irresponsible."
A recent study backs up Glenn's point.
The 2006 study "Effects of Alcohol Advertising Exposure on Drinking Among Youth" showed that the more alcohol ads young people see, the more they drink, and that each additional dollar alcohol companies spend on advertising raises the number of drinks youths consume by 3 percent.
"It's scary," Stinson says. "Ads portray alcohol as something with little or no consequences. They never touch on the darker side."
So, what's a parent to do?
Talk, talk and more talk, experts say.
"They will probably blow you off," Cowell says. "But they'll know you care. They'll get the message."
In 2006, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America's annual study showed a decline in frequent discussions (four or more) between parents and their teens about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse (55 percent in 2005, down to 49 percent in 2006). In response, the Partnership in 2007 launched a movement called Time to Talk (http://timetotalk.org).
"We're not talking about having a conversation with a 19- or 20-year-old," Stinson says. "We're talking about kids leaving middle school. There are plenty of kids starting to drink at 10 or 11 years old."
Middle school is when kids often become more independent and are given more freedom, so "they end up with access and the resources," Stinson says. And they experiment.
In the know
In addition to talking, parents should set a good example by being responsible drinkers themselves and by monitoring and supervising their kids.
"It's important for parents to know the parents of their kids' friends," Cowell says. "It's important to know where they are going. And it's your right to call their friends' parents to find out what's going on."
Also, let the kids know the consequences of alcohol, experts advise.
"They think they are immortal, invisible and bullet-proof," Glenn says. Often, underage drinkers have no idea that a 12-ounce beer, 5-ounce glass of wine and a 1.5-ounce shot of liquor have the same amount of alcohol.
And any beverage with alcohol can make them drunk.
"You can get just as drunk on beer as you can on whiskey," Glenn says. "But now, many kids do shots to get high faster. The way these kids binge now is so stupid and just incredible."
Nearly 7.2 million, or 19 percent, of those 10.8 million underage drinkers in 2006 were binge drinkers, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Stinson says studies have shown that adolescents drink more drinks per occasion than adults.
"They are drinking to get impaired, for sure," he says.
Alcohol alters a person's perceptions, emotions, movement, vision and hearing. Drinking a lot in a short period can result in vomiting, blackouts, unconsciousness, seizures and even death from alcohol poisoning.
People who drink are more likely to engage in risky behavior or be victims of assault, injuries, suicide, academic failure or automobile accidents. Those who drink at a younger age are more likely to become alcoholics.
Because experts now know that the teen brain still is developing, alcohol use also can lead to future physical or emotional problems, according to the administration.
Finally, remind your kids that despite what they might think, not everyone is doing it.
Although 28.3 percent of youths have had a drink, 71.7 percent of people 12-20 have not had a drink in the past month, according to the administration.
"If you ask a high school student if most kids drink, he will probably say yes," Stinson says. "But if you spend a little time getting educated, you'll realize that most people don't drink and there are things out there to do without alcohol and drugs."
Whatever you do, make sure your kids get the message.
"Set clear expectations for kids," Stinson says. "Don't be ambivalent. There is a lot of peer pressure among parents to be the cool parent, but you need to be a parent, not a friend."