Effective Alcohol Education: What Works with Underage Youths

Public policy in the U.S. calling for complete alcohol abstinence by all persons under the age of 21 is highly unsuccessful. Indeed, there is much evidence that the policy has actually been counterproductive -- causing more problems than it prevents.

Current alcohol education programs are virtually mandated by law to present abstinence-only messages and pretend that few people under the age of 21 actually drink. These programs are based on three myths:

First Myth - Alcohol use is the same as alcohol abuse. They are the same thing.

Second Myth - Alcohol consumption is a gateway or steppingstone leading to drug use.

Third Myth - Exaggerating the dangers of alcohol consumption will scare young people into abstinence.

Young people observe the world around them and realize that most people enjoy consuming alcoholic beverages without abusing it them or causing any harm to anyone whatsoever. Most abstinence-only programs, however, tend to ignore the important distinction and treat any use as abuse of alcohol.

The popular gateway theory holds that using one substance, such as alcohol or tobacco, leads to the use of drugs. However, years of government research have failed to produce any evidence that using one substance causes the use of another. Again, young people realize from observation that those who consume alcohol don’t usually, much less inevitably, go on to use drugs.

Exaggerating the dangers of alcohol consumption has been part of alcohol education for over one hundred years. Scare tactics and “health terrorism” are not only ineffective but also counterproductive. As young people mature, they realize the falsity of the myths presented to them as fact. At that point, alcohol educators have lost all credibility

Alcohol is a part of Western culture 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 by all their members 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. 1 Secular alcohol education can’t even reach this very low level of "success."

The majority of young people will consume alcohol, at least occasionally. This doesn’t mean that they are bad or that their parents have failed them. It means that alcohol is part of youth culture, as it is in the larger society. It means that their children are normal.

Unfortunately, the complete and only goal of our abstinence-only approach is to prevent any and all consumption of alcohol among those under the age of 21. Young people (including all adults age 18, 19, and 20) are told to abstain and sometimes given strategies to help them refuse alcoholic beverages.

Nothing is provided for those who choose to drink. There is no information on alcohol equivalency, on pacing consumption, on the importance of eating while drinking, on the use of designated drivers, or on anything else than can reduce the possible harm resulting from alcohol abuse.

Protecting young people and keeping them from safe from harm must be a goal of any reality-based alcohol education program. Such programs need to:

  • Provide accurate, truthful and unbiased information about alcohol and its consumption
  • Distinguish between the use and abuse of alcohol
  • Teach the legal status and potential legal consequences of underage purchase, possession and/or consumption of alcoholic beverages by those under age 21
  • Teach effective ways to reduce the potential harm that can result from the abuse of alcohol

Many groups around the world have learned how to consume alcohol widely with almost no problems. Some of those groups 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:

  • The substance of alcohol is seen as basically neutral. It is neither a terrible poison nor is it a magic elixir that can transform people into what they would like to be
  • The act of drinking is seen as natural and normal. While there is little or no social pressure to drink, there is absolutely no tolerance for abusive drinking
  • Education about alcohol starts early and starts in the home. Young people are taught -- through their parents' good example and under their supervision -- that if they drink, they must do so moderately and responsibly. 2

This approach has enabled people to avoid the alcohol abuse problems that are common in our society. Yet alcohol educators fail to learn from the experience of successful groups, choosing 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 consumption of alcohol beverages.

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 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 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 for adults. It found that programs accepting responsible use are demonstrably more successful than are no-use-only programs. 3

In spite of good intentions and the expenditure of massive amounts of time, energy, and money the best evidence shows that our current abstinence-only 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.


  • 1. Guthrie, R. S. Abstinence and Alcohol Use among Senior Students Enrolled in Seventh-Day Adventist Academies. Unpublished M.S. thesis, University of Wisconsin - LaCrosse, 1986, pp. 11 and 79; Hanson, David J. Preventing Alcohol Abuse: Alcohol, Culture, and Control. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995, pp. 45-50.
  • 2. Hanson, David J. Preventing Alcohol Abuse: Alcohol, Culture, and Control. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995.
  • 3. Hanson, David J. Alcohol Education: What We Must Do. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996.


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