A Look at Youth & Alcohol - MetroFamily Magazine
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A Look at Youth & Alcohol

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Alcohol: Underage Drinking “The Problem”

Most people are aware of the common dangers associated with alcohol use, including alcoholism and drinking & driving fatalities, but the truly harmful effects of alcohol use are much greater than many of us realize.

Underage drinking is a leading public health problem in the United States. Today, nearly 20.8 million youth ages 12-20 are underage drinkers. Approximately 10% of 12-year-olds say they have used alcohol at least once. By age 13 that number doubles and by age 15, approximately 50% have had at least one drink.

Alcohol dependence rates are highest among young people between the ages of 18 and 20. What’s so sad is that THEY’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE DRINKING AT ALL!!

A Few Statistics:

  • Each day, three teens die as a result of drinking and driving. Another six die from other alcohol-related fatalities. Some of the deaths include:
    • homicides
    • suicides
    • drowning
  • Many other fatalities are from burns, falls, poisoning and other mishaps. It may be surprising to you, but all of these fatalities are totally preventable!!

If you’re asking if underage alcohol use is really this big of a problem, let me put it another way for you.

  • 5000 to 7000 youth under 16 took their first drink today. Those same numbers will do so tomorrow, Those same numbers did so yesterday.
  • 1 in 6 eighth graders are current drinkers.
  • 1 in 4 high school students binged on alcohol last month and probably will do so next month.

Other Consequences of Underage Alcohol:

Recent research and data has revealed that alcohol impacts both behavior and brain function differently in adolescents and adults. The adolescent (developing) brain is much more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol on learning, memory, judgment and physical coordination. Alcohol disrupts normal brain mechanisms that help restrain impulsive and aggressive behavior. A few problems that commonly surface:

  • Poor grades in school (Drop-outs). 25% of college students report academic problems (missing classes, failing grades)
  • Violent crimes (rape, assaults, homicide, child abuse, vandalism)
  • Unprotected Sex (unplanned pregnancies)
  • HIV-AIDS (Other STDs)

Despite the demonstrated health risks manifested from underage alcohol use and the billions of dollars spent on health care and non-productivity annually, alcohol is the most commonly used drug among America’s youth.

That use comes at a cost of nearly $62 billion dollars a year for medical treatment, lost productivity and pain & suffering of family members and victims who decide to drink. Nearly $800 million is spent in Oklahoma each year to pay for the negative impact of underage alcohol use.

College Drinking: Is it Better or Worse?

According to research summarized by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the consequences of excessive drinking by college students are more significant and more costly that many parents realize. These consequences affect students regardless if they drink or not. This means solutions must come from everyone!

Even for those students that did not drink in high school, once in college, heavy drinking rates of college students have tendencies of surpassing those of their non-college peers. Keep in mind that the majority of our college students are under the legal drinking age. They are also those adolescents with the developing brains mentioned earlier. Hence the aftermath of underage drinking on U. S. College Campuses:

  • 1,700 deaths each year
  • 97,000 sexual assaults
  •  600,000 injuries
  • 700,000 personal assaults

As stated earlier in this article, the legal age for alcohol use in this country is 21. This means that nearly two thirds of our traditional (first-time) college students should not even have access to alcohol!

Gloom and Doom?

You may be wondering why our children and youth are they taking such risks with their lives? If you’re a bit upset with the behavior, you’ll probably become outraged with some of the reasons our children and youth are drinking and at such alarming rates. I will provide you with the “WHYS” behind our underage drinking issue next.

Why Our Youth Use Alcohol

Young people’s decision to begin using alcohol comes from a myriad of places. This means the world they live in which includes their families, friends, schools, community and society as a whole. Alcohol use by young people is very often made possible by adults. Remember, people under the age of 21 can’t legally get alcohol on their own. Even though the internet, media, music and videos play a major role in our youth’s decision to use alcohol, it’s a “real live” adult that provides access to the substance.

What we must remember most is that the years when these decisions are being made are the ones filled with many mental and physical changes we as humans must experience. Their desire to search for who they are, to gain acceptance and independence can be stressful and may lead to underage drinking as an outlet.

Marketing and Advertising: A Major Culprit

  • A USA Today survey revealed that teens say alcohol ads have greater influence on the desire to drink in general than the desire to buy a particular brand.
  • A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the number of beer and distilled spirits ads tended to increase with a magazine’s youth readership. For every one million underage readers, (ages 12-19) in a magazine, researchers generally found 1.6 times more beer ads and 1.3 times more distilled spirits advertisements.
  • A study of children ages 9 to 11 found that children were more familiar with Budweiser’s television frogs than Smokey the Bear, the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers or even Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger.
  • Underage youth saw 3 alcohol ads on television for every 5 ads seen by adults between 2001 to 2003.
  • The alcohol industry placed ads on all 15 of the teens most popular television shows in 2003 at a cost of $28.4 MILLION DOLLARS.
  • Alcohol ads for Budweiser have been ranked consistently in the top ten favorites of teens

Of course the alcohol industry does responsibilities ads as well. Unfortunately, these ads are out of balance. Alcohol ads promoting use out number responsibility ads 32 to 1. Underage youth were 96 times more likely per capita to see a television commercial promoting alcohol from 2001 to 2003 than an industry-funded responsibility ad regarding underage drinking.

Responsibility ads have as a primary focus a clear message to continue drinking. They may warn against driving after drinking, using a designated driver for friends that are drinking, advising viewers to drink responsibly and informing viewers of the legal drinking age of 21. You can be assured that the alcohol industry will never put the words “don’t” & “drink” together in the same sentence!

Community Influences: Take a better look at your environment

How many “convenience” stores in your community are actually pseudo-liquors stores?

Oklahoma may only sell 3.2 beer, but in many other states in the nation that too is considered alcohol. You also have to contend with the new fruity drinks and alcoholic energy drinks. That’s right – alcoholic! The alcohol industry markets these products as flavored beers instead of distilled spirits to ensure they can be sold in local stores (where individuals under the legal drinking age have access).

How many of your local parks and play areas have restrictions of “glass bottles” instead of restricting the contents of the containers? As easy as it is to bring beer to the parks, (in their aluminum cans),think about the other alcoholic products you can put in non-glass containers. How many of your community events, (fairs, concerts, sports events, ect), allow alcoholic beverages without means to limit or restrict youth access to the products. How many of these events are actually sponsored by the alcohol industries?

Finally, one of the most unlikely places for you to consider an alcohol problem: “The easiest place (for our kids) to get beer is “right next to the milk”. We must remember that children see then children do. We as adults can use alcohol, but we must ensure that our children know that this is an “adult privilege.”

What Communities Can Do About Underage Drinking:

Alcohol is readily accessible and aggressively promoted in our society. It continues to be considered by many people as a normal part of growing up. This attitude, just like the use of alcohol itself is dangerous and must change. Underage drinking is a public health problem that results in serious personal, social and economic consequences for our youth, their families, communities and our nation. We must address the issue collectively if we expect to make change.

 Changing the Way We Look at Underage Drinking:

Preventing underage drinking through environmental changes begins by assessing factors in the communities that manifest the problem(s) and influence decisions about drinking. We must consider using environmental strategies that target changing conditions in our communities that condone youth alcohol and substance abuse. When applied correctly, these strategies can change the environment which brings about changes in attitudes, social norms and alcohol use behavior.

 Examples of Environmental Strategies:

  •  Create clear, consistent “no-use” messages throughout the community.
  • Limit the access of alcohol to the youth.
  • Partner with local and state key stakeholders to address underage drinking prevention.
  • Enforce existing laws and policies that relate to underage access to alcohol.
  • Create and enforce restrictions on industry media and marketing of alcohol-related materials that target the youth.
  • Limit the type and amount of pro-drinking messages and events in the community.
  • Reduce alcohol use at community events where youth are in attendance.
  • Limit and reduce events that are sponsored by the alcohol industry.
  • Ensure that all eligible community members are registered to vote.

Decreasing trends will happen with increased education and awareness to our communities about underage alcohol use. Underage alcohol use is a community problem which means it’s everyone’s problem. The solutions to this problem will have to come from that same community. It’s time to help our youth understand that it is not okay to drink alcohol.

Hiawatha N. Bouldin, Jr., CPS

Prevention Specialist, Eagle Ridge Institute – OKC, OK



  •  National Clearinghouse on Alcohol and Drug Information (NCADI) http://ncadi.samhsa.gov,  (800)729-6686
  • National Institute of Health
  • National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) http://www.niaaa.nih.gov
  • New York State Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services www.oasas.state.ny.us,  (800)522-5353
  • Higson R, Heeren T, Zakocs R. Age of drinking onset and involvement in physical fights after drinking. Pediatrics 108(4): 872-7, 2001
  • Drinking in America: Myths, Reality and Prevention Policy. Calverton: Pacific Institute For Research Evaluation. Us Dept. of Justice, 2002
  • www.collegedrinkingprevention.gov
  • Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) www.camy.org
  • Coalition for the Prevention of Alcohol Problems. January 8, 2002
  • “Cost of Alcohol Abuse” www.med.edu/alcohol/ed/costs.htm (Nov 8, 2004)

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