Underage Drinking

Alcohol abuse is a significant problem among young people and a solution needs to be found. This page evaluates prevention programs and identifies effective and ineffective ways to reduce drinking problems among young people, especially high school, college, and university students. The best preventive measures are often the easiest and most economical and can be easily implemented by parents and educators.

Teen Marijuana Use Up, Drinking Down

Marijuana use by U.S. teenagers has reached a 30 year high while teens drinking alcohol has dropped to a 30 year low according to a nation-wide survey for the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

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Teen Drinking Drops to Historic Low

Drinking alcohol by middle and high school students in the U.S. has reached its lowest level in 36-years.

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Social Norms Marketing is Highly Effective

The largest nationwide study of college students to date shows that reducing misperceptions of peer behavior significantly reduces high-risk drinking.

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Youthful Drinking Declines

The nation-wide Pride Survey of drinking alcohol among young people in the U.S. has reported significant declines in the consumption of alcohol.

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The Issue

We've all seen the distressing headlines. Case in point --- newspapers across the country carried frightening statistics reported by Joe Califano and the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA).

On national television programs, Califano reported horror stories of alcohol abuse among college students, associating it with assault, rape, and even murder. A CASA report asserted that:

But relax. These assertions are not supported by the facts. According to an investigative reporter, one of these statistics "appears to have been pulled from thin air," another is based on no evidence whatsoever, another is based on one inadequate survey and is inconsistent with all other surveys, and a fourth is highly suspect at best. 2 (See reference #2 for additional specifics.)

Even the most improbable of statistics are often repeated by news media as fact and become part of public belief. It is now commonly believed that the average young person will have seen 100,000 beer commercials between the age of two and eighteen But just think --- sixteen years or about 5,844 days occur between a person's second and eighteenth birthday. To see 100,000 beer commercials in that period, a person would have to see an average of more than seventeen a day! Common sense alone should have been enough to dispel the myth. But this clearly absurd statistic has been gullibly repeated over and over:

This blatantly erroneous statistic has even found its way into textbooks for students and in materials for teachers. 4

Distorted, biased, or incorrect statistics may attract media attention. They may even influence public policy. But they can't contribute to a reduction of alcohol abuse, which requires accurate information and unbiased interpretation. Therefore, we must be skeptical of surprising, sensationalized statistics.

Typically, inflated statistics are associated with talk of epidemics, threats to our youth, and similar alarmist language. Often they are promoted by groups with laudable sounding names such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest. But many such groups, which may have underlying social or political agendas, tend to exaggerate the extent and growth of problems in which they have a vested interest and, typically, a proposed solution. Problems widely seen by the public as being of epidemic proportion justify ever larger budgets, increased staffs, higher salaries, more power, and greater organizational prestige.

And many groups and individuals have a vested interest in exaggerating the extent of drinking problems. They generally include federal, state, and other governmental alcohol agencies; private alcohol agencies; alcohol treatment facilities, therapists, alcohol educators; and often alcohol abusers themselves.

Editors sometimes confess that sensational statistics have much more reader appeal than reports of generally declining problems. Thus, when alcohol statistics are presented by researchers, the media tend to spin stories in a negative light. For example, the Wall Street Journal ran the following headline and lead sentence in response to a press release by the Harvard School of Public Health:


Instead, the study could have resulted in this headline and lead story:

Similarly, a nation-wide survey of students at 168 U. S. colleges and universities found that:

While headlines typically express alarm over drinking epidemics among collegians, in reality drinking among college students continues to decline as abstaining from alcohol climbs:

So-called binge drinking among American college students also continues to decline For example, the proportion of college students who binge decreased significantly within a recent four-year period, according to the Harvard University study mentioned above. 12 (To see why much so-called binge drinking really isn't, visit Binge Drinking. You'll learn how completely sober people can be labeled bingers!)

These findings are consistent with data collected by for the National Institute on Drug Abuse by the Institute for Social Research. The ISR found that college "binge" drinking in the U.S. recently reached the lowest level of the entire 17-year period that its surveys have been conducted. 13

College students drink less than generally thought

College students "simply don't drink as much as everyone seems to think they do," according to researchers who used Breathalizers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Even on the traditional party nights of Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 66% of the students returned home with absolutely no blood alcohol content; two of every three students had not a trace of alcohol in their systems at the end of party nights.

"I'm not surprised at all by these results," said Rob Foss, manager of Alcohol Studies for the UNC Highway Traffic Safety Center, which conducted the study with funding from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the North Carolina Governor's Highway Safety Program. "Other Breathalizer studies we have done with drivers and recreational boaters show similar results - less drinking than is generally believed. We have substantial misperceptions about alcohol use in this country."

Similarly, drinking among young people in general continues to decline. For example, the proportion of youths aged 12 through 17 who consumed any alcohol within the previous month has dropped from 50% in 1979 down to 19% in 1998, according to the federal government's National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. That's down from one of every two youths to fewer than one of every five. 14

The proportion of both junior and senior high school students who have consumed any alcohol during the year has dropped again for the third year in a row, according to the PRIDE Survey, a nation-wide study of 138,079 students, which is designated by federal law as an official measure of substance use by teen-agers in the U.S. 15

Within a period of 17 years, there has been a 13% decrease in the proportion of American high school seniors who have ever consumed alcohol and a 24% decrease in the proportion who have ever "binged." 16

These are very important facts, but you probably haven't seen or heard much, if anything, about them in the mass media.

A Solution

In spite of all the hype and exaggeration, the fact remains that alcohol abuse is still a significant problem among youth that requires our attention. Thus, the question remains: what can we do to reduce alcohol abuse?

Significantly, hype and exaggeration are actually an important part of the problem. A negative spin on drinking statistics has a negative impact on drinking behaviors by contributing to a "reign of error. 17 When people believe that "everyone is doing it," abusive drinking increases as they try to conform to the imagined behaviors of others. 18 This is especially true among young people. Perceptions of the drinking behaviors of others strongly influences the actual drinking behavior of students. 19

The exaggeration of alcohol abuse tends to create a self-fulfilling prophesy. The more young people believe heavy drinking occurs, the more heavily they tend to drink in order to conform. 20 Research has demonstrated that reducing misperceptions of alcohol abuse is an effective way to reduce actual abuse among adolescents. 21

Individual students almost always believe that most others on campus drink more heavily than they do and the disparity between the perceived and the actual behaviors tend to be quite large. By conducting surveys of actual behavior and publicizing the results, the extent of heavy drinking can be quickly and significantly reduced. The most carefully assessed such project demonstrated a 35% reduction in heavy drinking, a 31% reduction in alcohol-related injuries to self, and a 54% reduction in alcohol-related injuries to others. 22

This approach to reducing alcohol problems is remarkably quick and inexpensive and has proven to be highly effective.

Alcohol And Society

Alcohol is a part of Western society and the majority of Americans enjoy alcohol beverages. To pretend that young people will grow up to enter a world of abstinence is both unrealistic and irresponsible.

Even religious groups strongly committed to abstinence are not very successful in maintaining it among their young people, the majority of whom drink. This is true even among students attending church supported schools. 23 Why should we expect secular alcohol education to even reach that very low level of "success"? It can't -- and it won't.

But many groups around the world have learned how to consume alcohol widely with almost no problems. Those familiar to most Americans include Italians, Jews, and Greeks. The success of such groups has three parts: 1) beliefs about the substance of alcohol, 2) the act of drinking, and 3) education about drinking.

In these successful groups:

This three-part approach has enabled many groups to avoid the alcohol abuse problems that have plagued our society. Yet our federal government and others in the U.S. prevention field fail to learn from the experience of successful groups, opting instead to portray alcohol as a "dirty drug" to be feared and avoided; to promote abstinence as the best choice for all people; and to work toward reducing all, including moderate and responsible, consumption of alcohol beverages.

Scare Tactics

Federal agencies systematically attempt to equate legal alcohol consumption with illegal drug use. For example, federal guidelines direct agencies to substitute "alcohol and drug use" with "alcohol and other drug use" and to avoid use of the term "responsible drinking" altogether. 26

Alcohol is also stigmatized by associating it with crack cocaine and other illegal drugs. A poster picturing a wine cooler warns "Don't be fooled. This is a drug." 28

Technically, this assertion is correct. Any substance -- salt, vitamins, water, food, etc. -- that alters the functioning of the body is a drug. But the word "drug" has negative connotations and the attempt is clearly to stigmatize a legal product that is used in moderation by most American adults.

Stigmatizing alcohol as a "drug" may trivialize the use of illegal drugs and thereby encourage their use. Or, especially among the very young, may create the false impression that parents who use alcohol in moderation are drug abusers whose good example should be rejected by their children. Thus, this misguided effort to equate alcohol with illicit drugs is likely to be counterproductive.

A Better Way

Instead of stigmatizing alcohol and trying to scare people into abstinence, we need to recognize that it is not alcohol itself but rather the abuse of alcohol that is the problem.

Teaching about responsible use does not require student consumption of alcohol any more than teaching them world geography requires them to visit Nepal, or teaching them civics requires that they run for office or vote in presidential elections. We teach students civics to prepare them for the day when they can vote and assume other civic responsibilities if they choose to do so.

Because either drinking in moderation or abstaining should both be equally acceptable options for adults, we must prepare students for either choice. To do otherwise is both irresponsible and ineffective, if not counterproductive.

A recent study of the effectiveness of alcohol education programs compared those that present an abstinence-only message with those that present drinking in moderation as an option. It is clear that programs accepting responsible use are demonstrably more successful than are no-use-only programs. 29

In spite of noble intentions and the expenditure of massive amounts of time, energy, and money the best evidence shows that our current abstinence-oriented alcohol education is ineffective. Simply doing more of what is not working will not lead to success; it is essential that we re-think our approach to the problem. Our youth are too important and the stakes are too high to so otherwise.


References and Readings

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