Young and Minority Leaders

Why Is Underage Drinking So Alluring?


“Alcohol remains the most heavily abused substance by America’s youth,” said acting Surgeon General Kenneth Moritsugu. At least 11 million kids are underage drinkers, with nearly 7.2 million of them binge drinking, which means having more than five drinks per occasion. Moritsugu says we need to have a “change in the culture and attitude toward drinking in America.” While underage tobacco and illicit drug use has decreased over the years, underage drinking remains a prevalent “rite-of-passage.” However, “Research shows that young people who start drinking before the age of 15 are five times more likely to have alcohol-related problems later in life,” Moritsugu warns.

Many parents struggle to find answers. Why is drinking while underage so alluring? The teenage years are a relatively long period of maturation where kids are continually pushing their minds, bodies and boundaries to the limit. Many kids enjoy the physical feeling of being “drunk” and their bodies are naturally more susceptible to the negative effects of alcohol, like drowsiness, withdrawal or lack of coordination, which explains why binge drinking is so common later on.

Some kids drink to cover up behavior problems, antisocial tendencies, aggression, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem or shyness. Drinking while underage can be encouraged by genetic or environmental factors as well. According to the NIAAA, children whose parents are alcoholics are 4-10 times more likely to develop addiction alcoholism.

Perhaps we can combat underage drinking through more subtle social and economic changes. One theory suggests that advertising is helping to foster an underage drinking culture that has kids feeling like “everyone is doing it” and that it’s “no big deal.” In G-rated films, nearly 50% of the characters were shown consuming alcohol without consequence, for example. The National Bureau of Economic Research released a report saying that reducing or eliminating alcohol ads would significantly decrease underage and binge drinking.

They found that young kids really liked the Budweiser talking lizards and Spuds MacKenzie dog, as well as the colorfully packaged drinks like Smirnoff and Skyy Blue. From an economic standpoint, the “Alcohol Advertising and Alcohol Consumption by Adolescents Working Paper” (Saffer & Dave) indicated that doubling the prices of alcoholic drinks would decrease underage drinking by 28% and reduce binge drinking by 51%. “Advertising is one thing, but just the prevalence [of alcohol] itself is normalizing,” says NIH peer pressure study leader Bruce Simons-Morton.

“Parents tend to see underage drinking and occasional binging as a rite of passage, rather than a deadly round of Russian roulette,” the Columbia National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse study reported. Approximately 5,000 minors died in alcohol related incidents, including 1,900 car crashes, 1,600 homicides, 300 suicides and hundreds of other falls, burns, and drownings.

As a community, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends that we raise alcohol prices, increase Zero Tolerance laws, improve school based prevention programs, commit to law enforcement and develop family-based treatment/prevention programs.

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