As the holiday season approaches, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission has a reminder for underage drinkers: Calling for help for an intoxicated friend could lead to an emergency room, but not calling for help could lead to the morgue.
Under a law that took effect Sept. 1, Texans under age 21 who suspect that a friend has alcohol poisoning will not be cited for possessing or consuming alcohol.
"There might be a time in the next few days when they might get into a bad situation, but this law gives them a chance to do the right thing," said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who sponsored Senate Bill 1331, or 911 Lifeline.
Alcohol use by people under 21 is a major public health problem, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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In 2008, the last year with statistics available, people under 21 made about 190,000 emergency room visits for injuries and other conditions linked to alcohol, according to the centers' data.
The immunity the new law provides is limited to the first person who calls for help, and only if he or she stays on the scene and cooperates with law enforcement officials and medical personnel. Arrests or citations are still possible for other violations, such as for drugs or weapons.
Beverage commission Administrator Alan Steen said young people sometimes fail to call for medical assistance because they're afraid or unsure what to do.
"The fear of getting in trouble, coupled with a lack of knowledge of the signs of alcohol poisoning, has led to several deaths in Austin, around Texas and across the county," Steen said in an e-mail. "We at TABC feel strongly that with enough publicity and education, this law will save lives."
Commission officials sent letters to more than 75 Texas colleges and universities at the start of the school year, asking administrators to help get the word out about the law.
Statistics are not yet available on the law's impact, according to an official with Awake Alive in Austin, a nonprofit whose mission is to prevent alcohol poisoning among young adults.
"The increase might be seen in emergency rooms in this state as more young people call," said Duncan Montgomery of the organization. "That's as opposed to more in the morgues."
Domingo Ramirez Jr., 817-390-7763