Underage Drinking Problems and Solutions: What Works

Underage drinking is common in the U.S. Alcohol abuse is a problem among some young people. We need to use effective solutions.

Overview

I.   The Concern

II.  A Solution

III. The Reality

IV.  Alcohol in Society

V.   Alcohol Abuse

The good news. The most effective alcohol abuse preventive measures are often the easiest. They’re also economical. And parents can use many of them.

The bad news. Ineffective programs for underage drinking are the most popular, by far. Many are even counterproductive. They’re worse than doing nothing.

I. The Concern: Underage Drinking

A number of organizations have the best of intentions. Their founders sought to reduce underage drinking. In other cases, existing groups began to address their concern. Together, they include these groups.

Problem Inflation

It’s natural when fighting a problem to exaggerate its extent. For example, concern over kidnapped children led to exaggerating the number of children involved. The implication was always that they were kidnapped by strangers and met horrible fates, including death. In reality, virtually all kidnapped children are taken by a parent not entitled to custody. That’s not good. But it’s not millions of children being kidnapped, molested and killed.

And the examples are almost endless. Concern about a problem leads to exaggeration. The exaggerated story takes on a life of its own. Even when false.

Underage Drinking and Alcohol Abuse

underage drinkingAll of the groups listed above, plus dozens of others, are concerned about underage drinking. They all see it as a major problem. They all want to prevent it.

These groups generally want laws to restrict the availability of alcohol in society in general. Not simply to reduce underage drinking. Part of this would involve greatly restricting alcohol advertising. Or even outlawing it. They see advertising as a part of the problem, so they exaggerate its distribution and possible impact.

100,000 Beer Commercials Myth

This may explain the 100,000 beer commercials myth. Many people think that the average young person sees 100,000 beer commercials between the age of two and eighteen. But to see 100,000 beer commercials in that period, a person would have to see an average of more than 17 a day! Common sense should dispel the myth. But it’s gullibly repeated over and over

  • In Sports Illustrated.
  • By the Center for Science in the Public Interest in the New York Times.
  • In Congressional testimony by a U.S. senator. By the National Council on Alcoholism. And by The Center for Children.
  • By a former U.S. Surgeon General.
  • In countless newspapers and magazines across the country
  • By Remove Intoxicated Drivers (RID) on national TV.
  • In textbooks for students and in materials for teachers.

Typically, inflated statistics are associated with talk of epidemics, threats to our youth, and similar alarmist language. Epidemic problems justify bigger budgets. Increased staffs. Higher salaries. And more power.

Self-Interest

Many people and entities have a vested self-interest in exaggerating the extent of underage  drinking. They generally include these.

  • Federal, state, and other governmental alcohol agencies.
  • Private alcohol agencies.
  • Pharmaceutical companies.
  • Alcohol treatment facilities.
  • Therapists and alcohol counselors.
  • Alcohol Educators.

Language Manipulation and Distortion: Binge Drinking.

Doctors and other professionals have long agreed on what a binge is. It’s a period of intoxication lasting at least two days. During that time the binger drops out of usual activities and obligations. For example, the drinker doesn’t go to work or attend classes. The binge lasts at least two days.

However, some researchers changed their definition. They said it was having five or more drinks on an occasion. An ‘occasion’ can be an entire day and evening. They soon modified it to be four or more drinks by a woman on an occasion.

Their new definition suddenly ‘created’ widespread binge drinking. It was now an epidemic. We must do somethin, and quickly. Alcohol researchers and activists were now in demand. They became highly paid speakers. They worked as consultants. And they made a lot of money to study this new danger.

Follow the Money

Why was the new definition? Easy. Just follow the money.

In addition, editors know that  sensational claims have much more appeal than reports of generally declining problems. Thus, when researchers present alcohol statistics, the media tend to spin stories in a negative light.

But the new definition was very misleading. Even worse. It can be  harmful to brand moderate drinking as bingeing. The New York Times noted the irony. People who follow guidelines for moderate drinking could be labeled bingers! So-called bingers didn’t even need to be intoxicated. Yet they might be forced into unneeded ‘treatment.’ Or they might be punished for normal behavior.

Distorted, biased, or incorrect statistics generate income. They may attract media attention. They may even influence public policy. But they can’t contribute to a reduction of alcohol abuse. That requires accurate information and unbiased interpretation.

II. A Solution for Underage Drinking and Alcohol Abuse.

underage drinkingHype and exaggeration are actually an important part of the problem. A negative spin on drinking statistics has a negative impact on drinking behaviors. It contributes to a “reign of error.” When people believe that “everyone is doing it,” abusive drinking increases. That’s because they try to conform to their imagined behaviors of others. This is especially true among young people. Perceptions of the drinking behaviors of others strongly influence the actual drinking behavior of students.

The exaggeration of underage drinking and 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. They want to conform. Research has demonstrated that reducing misperceptions of alcohol abuse is an effective way to reduce underage drinking. And especially to reduce actual alcohol abuse among adolescents.

Individual students almost always believe that most others on campus drink more heavily than they do. The disparity between the perceived and the actual behaviors tend to be quite large. We can quickly and greatly reduce heavy drinking by conducting surveys of actual behavior and publicizing the results. A carefully assessed project had a 35% drop in heavy drinking. It had a 31% decline in alcohol-related injuries to self. And it had a 54% reduction in alcohol-related injuries to others.

This approach to reducing alcohol problems is remarkably quick, inexpensive and highly effective. It’s social norms marketing or social norms clarification.

III. The Reality of Underage Drinking

underage drinking

Figure 1

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Figure 2

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Figure 3

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Figure 4

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Figure 5

A continuing barrage from the media claims that drinking among young people is a growing epidemic. The fact is the opposite. Drinking among young people is actually on the decline. It has been for decades.

For example, look at the statistics on drinking among high school seniors.1

The proportion who have ever consumed alcohol is down (Fig 1).

Those who had alcohol during the previous year is down (Fig 2).

The proportion who had alcohol during previous 30 days is down (Fig 3).

High school seniors who recently had alcohol daily is down (Fig 4).

The proportion who consumed five or more drinks on an occasion within previous two weeks is down (Fig 5).

The situation is the same for college and university students. It is the same for other young adults. The proportion who drink has dropped for decades. So has the proportion who drink heavily.2

The trend for over a third of a century is the same. Down. Lower. And down even more.

There is no underage drinking epidemic.

IV. Alcohol in Society

Alcohol is a part of Western society. Most American adults enjoy alcohol beverages. It’s unrealistic and irresponsible to pretend that young people will live in an abstinent world.

Even alcohol-abstinent religious groups don’t maintaining it well among their young people. Indeed, most of them drink. This is true even among students attending church supported schools. Why should we expect secular alcohol education to even reach that very low level of “success”? It can’t — and it won’t.

People in many groups around the world drink alcohol daily with almost no problems. Examples are Italians, Jews, Portuguese, Spaniards, French, and Greeks. There are three parts to their success. (1) Beliefs about alcohol itself. (2) Acceptable drinking behaviors. (3) Education about drinking.

Here’s more detail.

  1. They believe the substance of alcohol is neutral. It is neither a terrible poison nor a magic elixir. It can’t transform people into what they want to be.
  2. People have two equally acceptable options about drinking. They may choose to drink in moderation. Or they may choose to abstain. Both are socially equal. There is little or no social pressure to drink. Abstaining is socially acceptable. But there is absolutely no tolerance for abusive drinking. By anyone. Anytime. For any reason. Period.
  3. Alcohol education starts early and in the home. Parents are good examples. And they supervise their children’s drinking. Young people learn that if they ever drink, they must do so moderately and responsibly.3

This three-part approach has enables many groups to avoid the alcohol abuse problems that have plagued our society.

Yet we fail to learn from the experience of successful groups. Instead, we portray alcohol as a “dirty drug.” As something people should fear and avoid. We discourage moderate drinking. And we promote abstinence as the best choice for everyone.

Scare Tactics

Government agencies 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.” They are told to avoid use of the term “responsible drinking” altogether.

The agencies also stigmatize alcohol. They associate it with crack cocaine and other illegal drugs. A poster shows a wine cooler and warns “Don’t be fooled. This is a drug.” (Technically, it’s also a solvent. That sounds horrible. And it can even be a poison!)

underage drinkingTechnically, alcohol is a drug. Any substance that alters the functioning of the body is a drug. That includes  salt, vitamins, and water. But the word “drug” carries negative connotations. They stigmatize a legal product. One that is most American adults drink responsibly.

Stigmatizing alcohol as a “drug” may trivialize the use of illegal drugs. It may thereby encourage their use. Or it may create the false impression that parents who drink in moderation are drug abusers.4 Thus, this misguided effort to equate alcohol with illicit drugs is likely to backfire.

V. Alcohol Abuse, Not Drinking in Moderation, is the Problem

We stigmatize alcohol and try to scare people into abstinence. But we need to recognize that alcohol itself isn’t the problem. Drinking responsibly isn’t the problem. The abuse of alcohol is the problem.

Teaching about responsible use doesn’t require students to drink alcohol. Teaching them civics doesn’t require them to run for office or vote in presidential elections. We teach students civics to prepare them for the day when they can vote. And for when they can engage in other and assume other civic activities if they choose.

Either drinking in moderation or abstaining should both be equally acceptable options for adults. So we must prepare students for either choice. To do otherwise is both irresponsible and ineffective.

A study of alcohol education programs examined those that present an abstinence-only message. It compared them with those that present drinking in moderation as an option. Programs accepting responsible use were much more effective than no-use-only programs.5

We spend massive amounts of time, energy, and money on alcohol education. Yet our  abstinence-only programs are ineffective. Simply doing more of what is not working will not lead to success. We need to re-think our approach to the problem. Our youth are too important to do otherwise.

Popular Resources on Underage Drinking

Marcovitz, H. Should the Drinking Age be Lowered? San Diego: ReferencePoint, 2011.

Piehl, N. Underage Drinking. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven, 2010. Juvenile.

Scherer, L. Underage Drinking. Rosen, 2016.

Shannon, J. Alcohol Information for Teens. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005.

References for Underage Drinking Problems
  1. Johnston, L. D., et al.  Monitoring the Future National Survey Results on Drug Use, 1975-2014. Ann Arbor: ISR, U. Michigan, 2015.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Hanson, D. Preventing Alcohol Abuse. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995.
  4. Poster “25”  Washington State Substance Abuse Coalition. Untitled poster, n.d.
  5. Hanson, D. Alcohol Education. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996.