The final episode of the hit television show "ER" recently was a case of art imitating life -- and it was no accident. The plot line focused on a teen in a coma induced by binge drinking.
In the script she faced the threat of brain damage. In real life, the niece of ER executive producer John Wells died from alcohol poisoning. In his final program, he was making a statement about a national problem.
Underage drinking and binge drinking in particular is one of the key concerns for Pennsylvania beer distributors.
If you've ever tried to buy beer -- especially by the keg -- at one of hundreds of shops around the state operated by a member of the Malt Beverage Distributors Association of Pennsylvania, you've probably been questioned and "carded" if you look a day under 30 years of age or lack lots of well-earned skin wrinkles.
For beer distributors such as me -- and almost all of us are parents -- we wouldn't want someone else selling something potentially harmful to our kids and strive to behave in the same way toward the children of others.
The typical beer distributor won't even let a teen without adult supervision enter his or her store. And, the documentation of age can be pretty thorough.
That said, some kids still get beer elsewhere and that's a concern to all of us.
Many times, it's through a "straw buyer" - someone legally of age buys the beer and turns it over to partying teens. Most beer distributors would rather lose a sale than allow an obvious "straw purchase," especially those operating near college campuses.
And that's pretty much the way people want it.
According to the national Center for Alcohol Policy, 78 percent of the respondents in a poll last year agreed that relaxing state laws and regulations that help keep alcohol out of the hands of kids would only make underage alcohol consumption worse.
What's more, less than half of those surveyed thought it was "very difficult" for minors to purchase alcohol in their community. A clear majority, 59 percent, said they were against efforts to change the current system of alcoholic beverage laws. They agreed with the statement that beer distributors "play an important role in making sure that alcohol is sold safely and responsibly in accordance with the laws." Only 26 percent agreed with proposals that "would give consumers more choices."
More telling, 74 percent agreed with the statement: "Parents, police officers and retailers already have a difficult challenge keeping alcohol out of the hands of minors. Getting rid of rules, regulations and safeguards could make the problem worse."
How do we know the hard-line policy followed by most Pennsylvania beer distributors pays off? According to sources at the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement of the Pennsylvania State Police, beer distributors make up less than 10 percent of the citations issued statewide for sales to minors. Under the program, real kids using real ID cards attempt to buy alcohol. Of all the categories of Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board licenses -- restaurant, carryout, resort and distributors -- the beer distributors have the lowest rate of "non-compliance" (selling beverages to minors).
April is Alcohol Awareness Month as declared by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the federal government. As president of the Malt Beverage Distributors Association of Pennsylvania, I want the state's mothers and fathers to know that our members take our responsibilities to heart. We don't sell to minors, and we urge adults to drink responsibly.
We'd like everyone in our communities to be our customers someday -- when they're of age -- and we'd like to have them around as customers for a long, long time. When beer is your only business, that's a good business practice. And, it's a good neighbor policy, too.
DAVID SHIPULA is the owner of Beer Super, a beer distributorship in Wilkes-Barre, and president of the Malt Beverage Distributors Association of Pennsylvania.