Why is underage drinking a problem?

While the good news is that most kids don’t drink, we still have a serious problem, both here in Maine and around the nation.  Alcohol is the drug of choice among Maine youth – more kids use alcohol than tobacco, marijuana, or any other illegal drugs.

While they are in the minority, those kids who do drink are putting themselves at great risk.  Alcohol can have powerful effects on anyone who uses it, but its use by children and teenagers poses even higher risks for minds and bodies that are still developing. According to the same survey results cited earlier, 6% of middle school students and 23% of high school students in Maine said they had participated in "binge” drinking, that’s 5 or more drinks in a row, on at least one occasion in the two weeks prior to the survey.[1]   

National research clearly demonstrates the many ways in which underage drinking is related to both small and large tragedies.

o       Alcohol use clouds judgment and reduces inhibitions, both of which are critical safeguards during a developmental stage when risk-taking behavior is common. 

o       Alcohol use interferes with the development of social skills, critical thinking, academic achievement, and the ability to remember what is learned in school.[2]

o       Drinking is a factor in early and unprotected sexual activity among teenagers, sexually transmitted diseases, unplanned pregnancy, and sexual assault.[3] 

o       Alcohol use is also implicated in all of the leading causes of death for youth – car crashes, homicide, suicide, drownings and other injuries.  In Maine , approximately one-third of fatal car crashes involving young drivers are alcohol-related.[4]

o       Alcohol kills more than 6 times more young people than all other illicit drugs combined.[5]  

It does make a difference when we keep our kids alcohol-free.  While 40% of kids who begin drinking before age 13 will develop alcohol abuse or dependence at some point in their lives, that proportion drops to below 10% for those who begin drinking after age 21.  It’s worth the wait.[6]

[1] Maine Youth Drug and Alcohol Use Survey, Office of Substance Abuse, Department of Behavioral and Developmental Services, 2000.

[2] Brown SA, Tapert SF, Granholm E, et al., 2000.  Neurological functioning of adolescents: Effects of protracted alcohol use.  Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 24(2): 164-171.  Acheson, S.K., Stein, R.M., and Swartzwelder, H.S. (1998).  Impairment of Semantic and Figural Memory by Acute Ethanol: Age-dependent Effects. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 22, 1437-1442

[3] Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free, 2001.  Keep Kids Alcohol Free: Strategies for Action. NIH Publication No. 01-4780.  Relationship between alcohol consumption and victim behaviors immediately preceding sexual aggression by an acquaintance. Nicole Turillon Harrington and Harold Leitenberg. Violence and Victims 9(4):315-324. 1994.  Beliefs about the effects of alcohol on involvement in coercive and consenting sexual activities. Kim Fromme and Julie Wendel. Journal of Applied Social Psychology 25(23):2099-2117. 1995.

[4] Maine Department of Public Safety,  Bureau of Highway Safety; http://www.maine.gov/dps/Bhs/youngdrivers1996.htm.

[5] Miller T. and The Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation.  Adolescent Deaths Attributable to Underage Drinking and to Illicit Drug Use.

[6] Grant BE, Dawson DA, 1997.  Age at onset of alcohol use and association with DSM-IV alcohol abuse and dependence: Results from the National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey.  Journal of Substance Abuse 9:103-110.