Half of All Booze Misused or Abused

Abuse-Among teens And Adults-Accounts For 50% of Alcohol Use In U.S.

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on February 25, 2003
From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 25, 2003 -- Half of all the alcohol in the U.S. is bought and consumed by those who shouldn't do either -- adults who drink too much and kids who drink too young. A new study highlights the fact that alcohol abuse is a common problem -- even among teens.

Of the more than 4 billion drinks served each month across the country, 30% are downed by legal-but-excessive drinkers, while underage imbibers partake of another 20%, suggests new research compiled from federal surveys. Together, these two groups represent fewer than one in four of all American alcohol consumers, yet spend nearly $57 billion on booze each year -- nearly half of the $116 billion spent on all the nation's alcohol.

"What this means is that literally half of all the nation's alcohol is either misused or abused," says Susan E. Foster, MSW, director of policy research and analysis at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. "And that translates to a big public health problem."

Her study, published in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association, is among the largest conducted to explore U.S. drinking habits. It analyzes data from surveys of 217,000 Americans ages 12 and older and includes newer CDC questionnaires conducted at American schools that offered anonymity to those interviewed. "Previously, most surveys were done in the home, with at least one parent present, so it's doubtful that underage drinkers offered completely honest answers," Foster tells WebMD.

Adult excessive drinking was defined as more than two drinks a day -- with one drink being one can/bottle of beer, one glass of wine, one can/bottle of wine cooler, one cocktail, or one shot of liquor.

While Foster notes that the vast majority of drinking Americans consume alcohol moderately and without negatively impacting their everyday activities, her findings paint a sobering picture of abuse -- especially among the young, whose patterns are already mimicking those of adult problem drinkers:

  • Half of all surveyed teens between 12 and 20 admit to having consumed alcohol at least once. However, those who drink typically do so an average of six times per month -- having six drinks per episode.
  • The youngest drinkers surveyed, between ages 12 and 14, typically drink four times a month and have four drinks per sitting.
  • Adult excessive drinkers, who represent one of every 11 Americans who consume alcohol on any level, average between four and 13 drinks per day.

"What we also found is that the average age that kids start drinking is 14," Foster tells WebMD. "That's disturbing when you consider that we know from previous research that kids who start drinking before age 21 are two times more likely to develop later alcohol problems. And if they start before age 15, they are four times more likely to later become alcoholics compared [with] kids who didn't drink until later."

Underage drinking is already implicated in the three leading causes of teenage death -- car accidents, homicide, and suicide. And recent studies suggest that teen drinking increases the risk of brain damage, says Mary C. Dufour, MD, MPH, deputy director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

"This new finding is certainly scary, but I can't say that I'm surprised by it," she tells WebMD. "We've long known that underage and excessive adult drinking are serious problems. Hopefully, this will serve as a wake-up call to parents, who need to know that underage drinking is not a rite of passage or a teen ritual that is to be expected. It's a very serious problem that leads to many health consequences."

But it doesn't have to. Another study just released suggests that teens whose parents closely monitor their activities and friends are less likely to use alcohol or to be in risky situations involving alcohol. That finding appears in the new issue of American Journal of Health Behavior.

"These are parents who have made it clear, from the get-go, that they want to know where their kids are, what they are doing, and who they're doing it with," says researcher Kenneth H. Beck, PhD, of the University of Maryland, who headed that study. "But you need to start this parental monitoring early -- before your child goes into middle school or high school."

His advice: "Get to know the parents of your teens' friends. You want to establish a mutual collaboration," he tells WebMD. "Very often, when kids go to elementary school, parents know the parents of their children's friend. But once they get into middle school & high school, the friendship network expands, but the parents input in it doesn't."

Show Sources

SOURCES: The Journal of the American Medical Association, Feb. 26, 2003. American Journal of Health Behavior, March/April 2003. Susan E. Foster, MSW, director of policy research and analysis at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, New York. Mary C. Dufour, MD, MPH, deputy director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Bethesda, Maryland. Kenneth H. Beck, PhD, professor of public and community health, University of Maryland, College Park.

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