Alcohol Policies Home
America's Most Damaging and
Neglected Youth Drug Problem
Underage drinking is a public health
and safety problem of major proportions for young people and society, and a
costly burden on the U.S. economy. According to the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention, alcohol is a key factor in the three leading
causes of death among young people in America: traffic crashes, homicides,
and suicides. Young drivers are involved in alcohol-related traffic
crashes more often than any other age group. And the consequences of
underage drinking have huge economic costs -- more than $58 billion per
Research suggests that underage
drinking accounts for up to 20% of all alcohol consumption in the U.S.2
According to the DHHS, alcohol is the most costly of all drug problems,
imposing economic costs of more than $185 billion on the nation each year
and causing more than 100,000 deaths.3
The average American child tries
alcohol before the age of 13. Youth who drink before they turn 15 are
four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who start
drinking at 21.4 Underage drinking spawns the future heavy
and addicted drinking on which the beer market so heavily depends: the top
20% of beer drinkers account for 80% of beer consumption.5
The vast majority of drinkers, who consume alcohol minimally, only account
for 20% of the market.
The Alcoholic-Beverage Industry
and Underage Drinking
Alcohol producers presently have a
defacto monopoly on messages young people receive about alcohol. They
spend some $3 billion dollars a year on sophisticated, seductive product
appeals, and a tiny fraction of that amount on "responsibility" messages
that are little more than thinly-veiled brand promotions and public
Underage youth are 60 times more
likely to see a commercial for an alcoholic beverage than they are to see an
industry-funded "responsibility" ad.6
The industry's "responsibility"
messages have never been proven effective, and serve more to inoculate
alcohol marketers from potential legal liability and Congressional and
regulatory scrutiny than they do to reduce alcohol problems.
The alcoholic-beverage industry has
an undeniable responsibility to help prevent the misuse of its products.
However, just as tobacco companies shouldn't have primary responsibility for
youth smoking prevention, neither should vested interests in the
alcoholic-beverage industry have the last -- or loudest -- word when it
comes to preventing underage drinking.
Time to End Decades of Neglect on
As a society, we have invested
heavily in massive public awareness campaigns designed to deter young people
from taking up smoking and experimenting with illicit drugs. Those
campaigns have provided an effective backdrop for a myriad of revolutionary
public and private reforms that range from the imposition of advertising
restrictions on cigarettes to the prohibition -- even in bars -- of indoor
tobacco use. There is little doubt that they have helped to change the
social and political conversation about smoking and drugs, and have
empowered citizens and communities to take effective action on behalf of
young people and society.
In part due to the absence of
comparable efforts to combat underage drinking, alcohol use and binge
drinking among teens continue at alarmingly high rates. The latest
(2001) National Household Survey data suggest that alcohol use among
American youth has even increased. Ten million 12- to 20-year-olds
reported drinking alcohol in the year prior to the survey. Of those,
nearly 6.8 million (19%) reported binge drinking and 2.1 million (6%) were
heavy drinkers. Among the 12- to 17-year-olds, 10.6% binge drink and
2.5% say they're heavy drinkers. In fact, previous month alcohol use
among 12- to 17-year-olds increased more than 5% since 2000; nearly one in
five reported alcohol use in the past month.7
A 2001 report by the General
Accounting Office of the U.S. Congress (Underage Drinking: Information on
Federal Funds Targeted at Prevention) found that only $71 million of the
federal government's fiscal year 2000 budget was allocated specifically to
the prevention of underage drinking. This minimal commitment pales in
comparison with the $18 billion our government spends on the drug
war, the $58 billion in estimated annual costs of underage drinking,
and the $3 billion alcohol producers spend per year on alcohol
advertising and promotion. Moreover, this small allocation is
scattered among disparate federal agencies and multiple programs, developed
with little coordination among the agencies and no unifying vision or
We expect that the NAS report will
serve to focus public and policy-makers' attention on underage drinking as a
significant public health and safety issue. We hope that debate on the
report's findings will help to prompt renewed interest in, leadership for,
and commitment to reducing the widespread harms of underage drinking.
If the alcoholic-beverage industry were sincere in its commitment to prevent
underage drinking, it would embrace public efforts to educate young people
and parents about the risks of alcohol use.
The NAS effort to develop a
cost-effective national plan to reduce underage drinking is not about
prohibition. It is not about stigmatizing drinkers, alcohol, or
alcohol producers. It is not about communicating simplistic and
self-defeating "responsible drinking" messages that heighten youth rebellion
and interest in alcohol.
It will be about ending our
national denial of underage drinking as a major public health and safety
issue, increasing public awareness and understanding of the destructive role
of alcohol in young people's lives, and strengthening families' and
communities' resolve and capacity to combat America's most devastating youth
September 4, 2003
1. Pacific Institute for
Research and Evaluation. Costs of Underage Drinking. prepared
September 5, 2002.
2. Foster, S.E., Vaughan,
R.D., Foster, W.H. & Califano, J.A. (2003). Alcohol Consumption and
Expenditures for Underage Drinking and Adult Excessive Drinking.
3. McGinnis, J.M. & Foege, W.H.
(1993). Actual causes of death in the United States. JAMA.
4. Hingson, R.W., Heeren, T.,
Jamanka, A. & Howland, J. (2000). Age of drinking onset and unintentional
injury involvement after drinking. JAMA.
5. Greenfield, T.K. & Rogers,
J.D. (1999). Who drinks most of the alcohol in the U.S.? The policy
implications. Journal of Studies on Alcohol. 60(1):78-89.
6. Center on Alcohol Marketing
and Youth (CAMY). (2003). Drops in the Bucket: Alcohol Industry
"Responsibility" Advertising on Television in 2001. Research
Report. February 3, 2003. Online: http://camy.org/research/drops0203/
7. Substance Abuse and Mental
Health Services Administration. (2002). Results from the 2001 National
Household Survey on Drug Abuse: Volume I. Summary of National
Findings. Office of Applied Studies. NHSDA Series H-17.
DHHS Publication No. SMA 02-3758. Rockville, MD.
NAS Report Background
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