Underage drinking rose in Nebraska while declining nationwide, according to a report published by the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

From 2007 through 2011, the percentage of underage Nebraskans who drank alcohol increased from 35 percent to 41 percent, according to the report “Underage Drinking in Nebraska.''

Nationally in the same period, the percentage of underage drinkers fell from about 45 percent to 39 percent.

Underage drinking had major financial and social costs for Nebraskans, the report states.

In 2010, for example, Nebraskans spent $423 million on medical care, work loss and pain and suffering from incidents involving underage drinking. Underage drinkers also accounted for about one-quarter of alcohol sales.

Someone in his early teens or younger who drinks might be developmentally affected, the report states.

Drinking at a young age also could increase the chance of developing alcoholism later in life, said Jim Stimpson, a UNMC researcher and co-author of the study.

Because they lack maturity, older teens using alcohol often have more violent accidents and may commit violent crimes, he said.

Parents have an important role to play in keeping youths from drinking before they turn 21, said Nicole Carritt, one of the study's co-authors and executive director of Project Extra Mile, an organization that combats underage drinking in Nebraska.

“Kids are watching, always,” Carritt said.

Parents have “an opportunity to make sure their kids don't have access to alcohol, and one of the most important ways is to make sure they never ever provide alcohol for someone who is underage.”

However, to fix the problem, there needs to be a change in public policies, the authors say.

The report recommends that policymakers limit alcohol advertising, work on enforcing drinking age laws and limit hours of access to buy alcohol, among other proposals.

One of the best ways to limit alcohol access to minors is raising taxes on alcoholic beverages.

“Youth are extremely price sensitive when it comes to alcohol,” Carritt said. “If alcohol costs more, they're less likely to be able to afford it and have access to it.”

She also would like to see alcohol de-emphasized in Nebraska's culture.

Too many gatherings are centered around drinking, which sets a bad example for children, she said.

The culture sends mixed messages to youths about drinking, and that makes telling young people not to drink ineffective, Simpson said.

“We need to make it very clear that (drinking) is not the norm, this is not what we want you to be doing,'' he said.

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