The headlines are heartbreakingly familiar. “College student dies after weekend of binge drinking .” Or “Family of three killed in car accident with drunk driver.” The price we pay for alcohol use and abuse in the United States is high.

Alcohol is still the drug of choice among teenagers in the U.S. Current statistics show that as many as 78% of high school students have at least tried alcohol and 30% admit to approximately one episode of binge drinking a month. In addition, the average age at which teens are first experimenting with alcohol is 14. This is of particular concern because teens that begin drinking before the age of 15 are four times more likely to become alcohol dependent than those who wait until they are 21. This means a large number of U.S. teens may be at risk of becoming adults who drink excessively.

The consequences of this level of alcohol use in teens can be severe. For example, teenage drinking may damage the brain; interfere with mental and social development; interrupt academic progress; increase chances of risky sexual behavior and teenage pregnancy; increase juvenile delinquency; and result in unintentional injury and death.

If these teens go on to become adults who drink excessively, the consequences continue. Excessive drinking in adults is linked to serious health problems including increased risk for motor vehicle crashes, high blood pressure, stroke, violence, suicide, and certain types of cancer. In fact, no other health behavior leads to such a diverse array of harm.

So, just how much are they drinking? Current estimates are thought to be inaccurate. In a recent study published in the February 26, 2003 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association , researchers attempted to provide more accurate estimates by linking the amount of alcohol consumed with the amount of money spent consuming it. They found that underage and adult excessive drinking account for more than 50% of the alcohol consumed, and almost 50% of the amount spent on alcohol each year.

About the Study

The researchers obtained information from three national data sets: the National Household Survey of Drug Abuse (NHSDA), the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), and the Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS). They also obtained information from the 2000 U.S. census and the national data on consumption and consumer expenditures for alcohol, published by Adams Business Research.

Using this information, the researchers examined survey responses by 217,192 persons aged 12 and older in an effort to determine how much alcohol was consumed and how much was spent on that alcohol among underage drinkers between the ages of 12 to 20 years and in adult excessive drinkers age 21 and older. Drinks were defined as 1 can of beer, 1 glass of wine, 1 can or bottle of a wine cooler, 1 cocktail, or 1 shot of liquor. Excessive drinking was defined as more than two drinks per day.

The Findings

The study found that approximately 50% of all 12 to 20 year olds drink, and 52% of all adults drink excessively. It also estimated that underage drinkers consume over 19% of the 4.21 billion drinks consumed in the U.S. each month, while adult excessive drinkers consumed over 30% of that total.

In 1999 U.S. consumers spent $116.2 billion on alcohol, $22.5 billion of which came from underage drinkers and $34.4 billion of which was contributed to adult excessive drinking.

The study concluded that, in total, underage and adult excessive drinking account for more that 50% of the alcohol consumed, and almost 50% of the amount spent on alcohol each year.

How Does This Affect You?

The public health implications of the study are staggering. The societal cost of alcohol use and abuse are estimated to be $184.6 billion dollars annually. Approximately 30% of this figure is due to alcohol-related traffic crashes, violent crime, burns, drowning, suicide attempts, fetal alcohol syndrome, and treatment programs for alcohol abuse.

This study provides additional support for the claim that alcohol consumption among underage and heavy drinkers is a major public health problem with serious consequences. It also stresses the need for parents to be vigilant and actively engaged with their children in order to prevent underage drinking, especially since underage drinkers continually feed the ranks of adult alcohol abusers in this country.