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Underage Drinking: On the Decline?


Written by Samantha Dolci, Wellspring Intern

2018 has set a new record low for underage drinking in the United States.

According to the 2018 Monitoring the future survey (MTF), underage drinking among American youth continued to decline from previous years to the lowest levels recorded among 8th, 10th, 12th graders since the 1990’s. Additionally, drinking among 12th graders in 2018 reached the lowest level in survey history, with a significant decrease in lifetime, past month, daily consumption and binge drinking.

Underage drinking statistics play an important role in encouraging governments and communities to step up their efforts for prevention and treatment. It is often used as a form of baseline data to determine the most highly affected demographics and areas in need. Approximately one out of every 10 alcoholic drinks in the U.S.A is consumed illegally.

Though the legal drinking age in the United States is 21, children as young as 12 years old have engaged in some sort of underage alcoholism. By the time these children reach their teen years, more than 70% have consumed at least one alcoholic beverage before or by the age of 18.

Three out of four 8th graders (77%) report they have never consumed alcohol, which is down 66% proportionally from 70% in 1991 to 24% in 2018. Additionally, Lifetime consumption of alcohol among 10th and 12th graders declined proportionally 49% and 36% respectively since 1991. During this same time period, annual consumption rates also continued to decline among high school seniors, declining 63% proportionally among 8th graders, 48% among 10th graders, and 36% among 12th graders.

In 2018 specifically, statistically significant decreases in binge drinking among 8th, 10th, and 12th grade students were noted. Since 1991, the prevalence of binge drinking has been reduced by more than 50%. Though the reasons behind this decline are still not fully understood, there are many theories that scientist believe may contribute this declining trend. The most widely discussed hypothesis is that young people have begun to change the way that they organize their social lives.

Additionally, anti-smoking campaigns in recent decades may have had a cascading affect among American youth. Cigarettes are often the first thing that teenagers experiment with, and function as a “gateway drug” to alcohol. However, smoking is no longer considered “cool” and with that, teen cigarette smoking has dropped dramatically. Additional theories include the suggestion that young people raised in relatively affluent times are more likely to adopt a “slow life strategy” in which they postpone many of the activities that a previous generation may have adopted at an earlier age.

It is also important to note that though underage drinking has declined nationwide, other age cohorts have seen a steady rise in alcohol consumption, specifically the baby boomer generation. Researchers have taken note of a steady rise in alcohol use and binge drinking- an umbrella term for mild, moderate, and severe alcohol abuse in the 65+ demographic. Between 2005 and 2014, the percentage of older Americans who reported engaging in binge drinking increased from 12.5% to 14.9%, according to the NIAAA.

Despite the long-lasting decline in underage drinking, significant numbers of young people still continue to drink. In fact, alcohol still ranks above marijuana/cannabis as the most widely used substance by underage individuals. These facts point to an ongoing need to reduce alcohol use and find appropriate alcohol treatment resources for young consumers who develop diagnosable alcohol problems.

Photo by Robert Mathews on Unsplash


Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility - https://www.responsibility.org/alcohol-statistics/underage-drinking-statistics

The Washington Post - https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2018/04/16/teenagers-and-college-age-people-drink-less-while-this-group-pours-another-round/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.df7788de3a91

Alcohol.org - https://www.alcohol.org/teens/underage-drinking-stats/

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