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Prevalence of Underage Drinking

  • Every day in the United States, more than 4,750 kids under age 16 have their first full drink of alcohol.1
  • More youth in the United States drink alcohol than smoke tobacco or marijuana, making it the drug most used by American young people.2
  • The average age at which young people ages 12 to 17 begin to drink is 13 years old.3
  • The average age that underage drinkers ages 12 to 20 begin to drink is 16.1 years old.4
  • From 1979 to 2006, risk of binge drinking declined from 12- to 20-year old males but not females in this age range. NO reduction in binge drinking occurred for college males.5, 6
  • In a national study, 13.8% of eighth-graders reported having at least one drink in the past 30 days, and 11.5% had been drunk at least once in the past year.7
  • Between 1993 and 2001, 18- to 20-year-old drinkers showed the largest increase (56%) in binge-drinking episodes among American adults. This group of underage drinkers also had the second-highest rate of binge drinking, outstripped only by young adults ages 21 to 25.8
  • Twelve- to fourteen-year-old binge drinkers consume 91% of the alcohol drunk by their age group. Ninety-four percent of the alcohol drunk by all 15- to 17-year-olds and 96% of the alcohol drunk by all 18- to 20-year-olds is consumed through binge drinking.9
  • Approximately 10.0 million persons ages 12 to 20 (26.3 % of this age group) reported drinking alcohol in the past month. Nearly 6.5 million (17.0%) were binge drinkers, and 2.0 million (5.1%) were heavy drinkers.10
  • Almost half (48%) of all alcohol use reported by college students is attributable to those who are underage.11
  • Underage drinking is estimated to account for between 11% and 20% of the U.S. alcohol market. Even the lower estimate of 11% represents 3.6 billion drinks each year.12, 13
  • Youth who start drinking before the age of 15 are five times more likely to develop alcohol dependence or abuse in their lifetimes than those who begin drinking at age 21 years or later.1
  • In 2009, among current underage drinkers, 30.6% paid for the alcohol the last time they drank—8.8% purchased the alcohol themselves and 21.6% gave money to someone else to purchase it. Among the underage drinkers who did not pay for the alcohol the last time they drank, 38.9% received it from an unrelated person ages 21 or older, 16.6% received it from other underage persons, and 21.6% received it from parents, guardians, or other adult family members, 6.0% took the alcohol from home, 3.8% took it from someone else's home, and 8.1% got it some other way.15

More kids try alcohol than try cigarettes:16

 Had a drink in the last 30 daysHad a cigarette in the last 30 days
8th-graders13.8%6.9%
10th-graders28.9%13.6%
12th-graders41.2%19.2%

Prevalence of drinking by grade level:17

 Had a drink, last 30 daysHad a drink, last yearBeen drunk, last 30 daysBeen drunk, last yearBeen drunk, ever
8th-graders13.8%29.3%5.0%11.5%16.3%
10th-graders28.9%52.1%14.7%29.9%36.9%
12th-graders41.2%65.2%26.8%44.0%54.1%

Many people assume that European countries, with lower drinking ages, are more successful than the U.S. at preventing heavy drinking among young people. However, surveys from those countries that are designed to be comparable with U.S. data suggest otherwise:

Drinking among 15-16-year-old students, selected Western countries and United States, 200318

 FranceDenmarkItalySwedenUnited KingdomUnited States
Minimum purchase age (on-premise/off-premise)1918i16ii/181618/201821
Had a drink, last 30 days64%80%63%44%70%33%
Had five or more drinks on at least one occasion (binge drinking), last 30 days43%60%38%37%54%N/A20
Been drunk at least once, last 30 days18%49%12%17%33%18%

i Buying alcohol is illegal below the age of 18 for spirits and below 16 for other beverages.
ii Alcohol By Volume (ABV) must be under 16.5% to purchase in shops at age 16.

Updated July 2011


Notes

1. Gfroerer J. Re: Alcohol initiates under 16. Personal communication (e-mail) to Jernigan D, Baltimore, MD. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, August 30, 2010.

2. Johnston, L.D., O’Malley, P.M., Bachman, J.G., and Schulenberg, J.E. (2011). Monitoring the Future national results on adolescent drug use: Overview of key findings, 2010. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan.

3. Calculated using the 2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. J. Gfroerer of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, e-mail to David H. Jernigan, PhD, 14 September 2004.

4. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2011). Results from the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Volume I. Summary of National Findings (Office of Applied Studies, NSDUH Series H-41, HHS Publication No. SMA 11-4658). Rockville, MD.

5. Grucza RA, Norberg KE, Bierut LJ. Binge drinking among youths and young adults in the United States: 1979-2006, J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2009; 48(7): 692-702.

6. According to SAMHSA, binge alcohol use is defined as "five or more drinks on the same occasion (i.e., at the same time or within a couple of hours of each other) at least once in the past 30 days (includes heavy use)." Heavy alcohol use is defined as "five or more drinks on the same occasion on at least 5 different days in the past 30 days." Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2011). Results from the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings (Office of Applied Studies, NSDUH Series H-41, HHS Publication No. SMA 11-4658). Rockville, MD.

7. Johnston, L.D., O’Malley, P.M., Bachman, J.G., and Schulenberg, J.E. (2011). Monitoring the Future national results on adolescent drug use: Overview of key findings, 2010. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan

8. Naimi, T.S., Brewer, R.D., Mokdad, A., Denny, C., Serdula, M.K., et al., Binge Drinking Among US Adults, JAMA, 289, 2003: 70-75.

9. Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, Drinking in America: Myths, Realities, and Prevention Policy, prepared in support of the Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Enforcing the Underage Drinking Laws Program, U.S. Department of Justice (Calverton, MD: Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, 2005).

10. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2011). Results from the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Volume I. Summary of National Findings (Office of Applied Studies, NSDUH Series H-41, HHS Publication No. SMA 11-4658). Rockville, MD.

11. H. Wechsler, J.E. Lee, T.F. Nelson, M. Kuo, "Underage College Students' Drinking Behavior, Access to Alcohol, and the Influence of Deterrence Policies: Findings from the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study," Journal of American College Health 50, no. 5 (March 2002): 223-236.

12. Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, Drinking in America: Myths, Realities, and Prevention Policy, prepared in support of the Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Enforcing the Underage Drinking Laws Program, U.S. Department of Justice (Calverton, MD: Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, 2005)

13. S.E. Foster, R.D. Vaughan, W.H. Foster, J.A. Califano, "Alcohol Consumption and Expenditures for Underage Drinking and Adult Excessive Drinking," Journal of the American Medical Association 289, no. 8 (26 Feb 2003): 989-995.

14. Hingson, R.W., Heeren, T., Winter, M.R. Age at drinking onset and alcohol dependence: age at onset, duration, and severity. Pediatrics, 2006; 160:739–746.

15. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2011). Results from the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Volume I. Summary of National Findings (Office of Applied Studies, NSDUH Series H-41, HHS Publication No. SMA 11-4658). Rockville, MD.

16. Johnston, L.D., O’Malley, P.M., Bachman, J.G., and Schulenberg, J.E. (2011). Monitoring the Future national results on adolescent drug use: Overview of key findings, 2010. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan.

17. Ibid.

18. Except for minimum purchase age, Hibell, B., Guttormsson, U., Ahlstrom, S., Balakiereva, O., Bjarnason, T., et al. The 2007 ESPAD Report: Substance Use Among Students in 35 European Countries. (Stockholm: The Swedish Council for Information on Alcohol and Other Drugs [CAN], 2009). (Accessed at http://www.espad.org/espad-reports on June 15, 2011)

19. Wikipedia. Accessed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legal_drinking_age

20. Data from five countries are missing in the ESPAD report on this variable (Had five or more drinks on at least one occasion, last 30 days) owing to incompatibilities in the national version of the question.

Copyright 2010, The Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth

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