Statement of Joseph A. Califano, Jr., Chairman and President The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University on Teen Tipplers: America's Underage Drinking Epidemic.
Alcohol is far and away the top drug of abuse by America’s teens. Children under the age of 21 drink 19.7 percent of the alcohol consumed in the U.S. More than five million high school students (31.5 percent) admit to binge drinking at least once a month. The age at which children begin drinking is dropping: since 1975, the proportion of children who begin drinking in the eighth grade or earlier has jumped by almost a third, from 27 to 36 percent. And the gender gap that for generations separated alcohol consumption by girls and boys has evaporated: male and female ninth graders are just as likely to drink (40.2 percent and 41 percent) and binge drink (21.7 percent and 20.2 percent).
By any public health standard, America has an epidemic of underage drinking that germinates in elementary and middle schools with children nine to 13-years old and erupts on college campuses where 44 percent of students binge drink and alcohol is the number one substance of abuse--implicated in date rape, sexual harassment, racial disturbances, drop outs, overdose deaths from alcohol poisoning and suicides. Teenagers who drink are seven times likelier to engage in sex and twice as likely to have sex with four or more partners than those who do not. Such behavior can lead to unprotected sex with the increased risk of AIDS, other sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. Preliminary studies have shown that alcohol damages young minds, limiting mental and social development. High schoolers who drink are five times likelier to drop out of school.
No other substance threatens as many of the nation’s children. Eighty percent of high school students have tried alcohol, while 70 percent have smoked cigarettes and 47 percent have used marijuana. Twenty-nine percent of high school seniors have used some other illegal drug such as Ecstasy.
Drinking is teen America’s fatal attraction. Beer and other alcohol are implicated in the three top causes of teen deaths: accidents (including traffic fatalities and drowning), homicide and suicide. The financial costs of underage drinking approach $53 billion in accidents, drowning, burns, violent crime, suicide attempts, fetal alcohol syndrome, alcohol poisoning and emergency medical care.
Teens who experiment with alcohol are virtually certain to continue using it. Among high school seniors who have ever tried alcohol--even once--91.3 percent are still drinking in twelfth grade. Most troubling, of high school students who have ever been drunk, 83.3 percent--more than two million teens--are still getting drunk in twelfth grade.
This report makes clear: the time and place to deal with binge drinking in college is in elementary and high school.
Teen drinking is the number one source of adult alcoholism. Children who begin drinking before age 21 are more than twice as likely to develop alcohol-related problems. Those who begin drinking before age 15 are four times likelier to become alcoholics than those who do not drink before age 21.
Underage drinkers are at greater risk of nicotine and illegal drug addiction. Teens who are heavy drinkers (consume at least five drinks on at least five occasions over 30 days) are more than 12 times likelier to use illegal drugs than those who do not drink.
How did we get here?
We have to point the finger at ourselves.
Parents tend to see drinking and occasional bingeing as a rite of passage, rather than a deadly round of Russian roulette. Home--a child’s or a child’s friend’s--is a major source of alcohol for children, especially for younger children. A third of sixth and ninth graders obtain alcohol from their own homes. Children cite other people’s houses as the most common setting for drinking. In our schools, middle and high school teachers have been reluctant to inform parents or intervene when they suspect a child or teen of drinking. College administrators and alumni have played Pontius Pilate, washing their hands and looking away, as students made beer, alcohol and binge drinking a central part of their college experience. The pervasive influence of the entertainment media has glamorized and sexualized alcohol and rarely shown the ill effects of abuse. A review of 81 G-rated animated films found that in 34 percent of them alcohol use was associated with wealth or luxury and 19 percent associated alcohol with sexual activity.
Television runs ads glorifying beer on sports programs watched by millions of children and teens. With a big push from alcohol lobbyists, the Congress has denied the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy authority to include alcohol--the number one drug of abuse by children and teens--in its media campaign and other activities to prevent drug abuse.
The interest of the alcohol industry--especially those who sell beer--in underage drinking is understandable, if appalling. Underage drinkers are a critical segment of the alcohol beverage market. Underage drinkers consume 19.7 percent of the alcohol--most often beer--sold in this country. In 1999, they accounted for approximately $22.5 billion of the $116.2 billion spent on alcohol, including as much as $17.2 billion on beer. Without underage drinkers, the alcohol industry, and the beer industry in particular, would suffer severe economic declines and dramatic loss of profits.
Drawn from CASA’s innovative National Underage Drinking Survey of adults, this report calls for a national mobilization to curb underage drinking. It sets out actions for parents, law enforcement, legislators, the entertainment industry and for a measure of self control by the beer, wine and liquor industries. It will take all of that to save millions of teens from destroying their lives through alcohol abuse. Our children are our future and, for adults, the future is now in mounting a national effort to curb teen drinking. This survey provides a road map of citizens’ attitudes to guide federal, state and local officials interested in promoting public policies to reduce teen use of alcohol and binge drinking.
The prevention message is more difficult to convey with regard to alcohol. For smoking and illegal drug use, the message is, “No!” for children and adults. For alcohol, the message is “No!” for children under 21 (except for certain family and cultural occasions), but for most adults (those who are not alcoholics or alcohol abusers) the message is moderation, not prohibition.
This report continues CASA’s ongoing analysis of the impact of substance abuse on America’s systems and populations. We wish to thank Douglas L. Piper, Ph.D., Senior Researcher at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation who conducted focus groups and managed our survey, and Thomas K. Greenfield, Ph.D., Senior Scientist and Center Director of the Alcohol Research Group for consultation on our analysis of the financial interests of the alcohol industry.
Susan E. Foster, M.S.W., CASA’s Vice President and Director of Policy Research and Analysis, directed this effort. Linda Richter, Ph.D., senior research associate, was the Principal Investigator. Other CASA staff who contributed to the research were: Monica Anzaldi, M.A., research associate; Patrick Johnson, Ph.D., CASA Fellow; David Man, Ph.D., CASA’s librarian; Ivy Truong, library research associate; Barbara Kurzweil, library research specialist; and Elizabeth Johnson, M.P.A., intern and research assistant. Tisha Hooks helped edit the report. Jane Carlson handled the administrative responsibilities.
While many individuals and institutions contributed to this effort, the findings and opinions expressed herein are the sole responsibility of CASA.
The complete report can be downloaded and viewed HERE in PDF.