Teen Drinking Carries Lifelong Risks

Medically Reviewed by Annie Finnegan
From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 26, 2000 -- If a person starts drinking alcohol at a young age, before age 21, that can lead to even more problems down the road, both literally and figuratively.

In fact, the earlier a person starts drinking, the higher the risk of car accidents and unintentional injuries as adolescents and young adults, according to a report in the Sept. 27 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.Drinking before the age of 21 also increases the risk of alcohol dependence later in life, even without a family history of alcoholism. Fortunately, there are some simple ways to help delay your teen's drinking age.

To study the role of early drinking on unintentional injury, researchers interviewed more than 40,000 middle-aged adults. Questions focused on drinking behavior, family history of alcoholism, and history of alcohol-related injury.

Those adults who started drinking before the age of 14 were 12 times more likely to have suffered an alcohol-related injury, both during their lifetime and within the last year. They also were three times more likely to have five or more drinks on a single day at least once per week during the past year.

"The findings are a cause for concern because teen-age drinking and driving is back up, after a 10-year decline," says lead author Ralph Hingson, ScD, professor and chair of social and behavioral science at Boston University School of Public Health. "And while drinking and driving, studies have shown that people are more likely to speed and less likely to wear seat belts," he adds.

As vice president of public policy for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), Hingson tells WebMD that the minimum legal drinking age of 21 has reduced alcohol-related traffic deaths. Still, 40% of all traffic deaths involve alcohol, accounting for more than 300,000 U.S. fatalities a year.

That's why researchers are exploring other ways to delay alcohol use. "Efforts to reduce liquor sales to minors are effective, as is community education about alcohol addiction," Hingson says. "School-based programs are also helpful, particularly when led by students, but are even better when they include parent-discussion exercises."

When it comes to counseling your kids about alcohol, Hingson has some simple advice:

  • Adopt a household rule, based on a "no-use" message, for children under the age of 21.
  • Explain that alcohol poses a greater risk for teen-agers, due to their lack of driving experience.
  • Remind them that they could lose their license under Zero Tolerance laws in all 50 states.

One of the best ways to reduce alcohol use is to strike while the iron is hot, as a previous study showed. "We tested a brief counseling intervention among people admitted to our trauma center," says co-author of that study Dennis Donovan, PhD, a professor of behavioral science at University of Washington in Seattle. "Most people tend to cut back on drinking after an alcohol-related injury, but the effect lasts longer in young adults who get some counseling," he tells WebMD.

As the director of the university's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute, Donovan says that both parents and peers play a big role in shaping teen-age drinking behavior. To reduce early alcohol use in your family, here's what Donovan recommends:

  • Be a role model in demonstrating responsible use of alcohol.
  • Do everything possible to keep your child interested in school.
  • Make it your business to know who your kid's friends are.

The influence of peers can help reduce teen-age drinking. That's the premise behind MADD's 2nd National Youth Summit, starting this Friday in Chevy Chase, Md. During the summit, high school students from all over the U.S. will make recommendations to Congress in an effort to reduce underage drinking and impaired driving.