Teen Binge Drinking Starts Early, With Help From the Culture

From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 15, 1999 (Washington) -- Binge drinking is frighteningly common among American high school and college students, according to John D. Rowlett, MD, speaking here at the 69th annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics. One-third of high school and college students admit to a binge in the last 30 days, he says. This high rate is understandable, Rowlett adds, since drinking is still viewed as glamorous.

"Rarely are persons consuming alcohol on television shown to suffer consequences [of excessive drinking]," says Rowlett, director of adolescent and young adult medicine at Backus Children's Hospital and Memorial Health University Medical Center in Savannah, Ga. "More commonly, alcohol is associated with friends, fellowship, success, beauty, and enjoyment. Children who are surveyed recognize the Budweiser frog slogan as often as they do Bugs Bunny's." A binge is defined as five or more alcoholic drinks in one sitting for a man, and four for a woman.

Parents need to start delivering the message about alcohol abuse early and often, and make sure that children get the message not just in what parents say, but what they do, Rowlett tells WebMD. "Your adolescent has already received several cultural messages about drinking since early childhood," he says. "You need to have these conversations well before the teen years, and you need to model the behavior you want them to have."

He describes an incident he observed when he was in a restaurant with his own daughter. "A young family of five was [in the restaurant]. The mother was drinking margaritas and the father had a pitcher of beer," he says. "They both got 'to go' cups and drove away in the family car. Though not visibly intoxicated, what was the message for the older children, ages approximately 9 and 11 years? Or for my daughter?"

Approximately 8% of 4th and 5th graders admit to already having had a full beer, according to data that Rowlett presented from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That percentage rises to 15% in 6th grade, and increases steadily. By 9th grade, 70% have had at least one drink, 40% report having had one in the last month, and 20% report having binged at least once. By 12th grade 80% have had at least one drink, 60% in the last month, and 40% have had a binge.


A family history of alcoholism, familial conflicts, and parental unemployment are well-known risk factors for adolescent alcohol abuse. Ironically, family affluence and a young person's social prestige can also put him or her at risk of problem drinking, and particularly for drinking and driving. Rowlett notes this is probably because this group is more likely to have access to automobiles.

"Parents and teens need to know that their pediatrician is an important resource for questions about alcohol use and abuse," Elizabeth Leigh Robbins, MD, a pediatrician in private practice, tells WebMD in an independent interview. "We're not just baby doctors. We need to start educating people about the hazards of problem drinking when they're children, and they need to hear the message on a frequent basis. We see this as a pediatric issue, and we want to make a difference in our families' lives."

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