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Sober Nation

Putting Recovery On The Map

10-02-13 | By

Underage Drinking in the United States

The Underage Drinking Problem

Of all the serious health problems prevalent in the United States, underage drinking is one of the most prevalent and serious health problems. Alcohol is the most widely used substances of abuse among the youth of this country.  The focus of this article is not focused squarely on the hard data that has been compiled by countless studies done by researchers and government agencies.  Hard data is a crucial piece; however, there are other components that comprise the puzzle as a whole and with those pieces in place a wider perspective emerges.  Along with statistical data, this article will explore the history of the legal drinking age in the United States as well as the prevalence of underage drinking in other countries with lower legal drinking ages in place.


underage drinking

Underage Drinking Statistics in the United States

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), more than half of America’s teenagers have had at least one drink by age 15 and the percentage increases to 70% by age 18.  Young people between the ages of 12 and 20 consume 11% of all alcohol consumed in the United States.  While young people drink less compared to adults, they often drink more because young people consume 90% of their alcohol by binge drinking.  Binge drinking, according to the NIAAA, has been defined as consuming five or more drinks on the same occasion.

Using that definition of binge drinking, the NIAAA estimates that 6.9 million young people had five or more drinks on the same occasion at least once in the past month.  About 5,000 young people in the United States die each year due to the dangers of underage drinking.  Of those 5,000 deaths, about 40% of those deaths are due to motor vehicle crashes with homicides and alcohol poisoning, falls and drowning close behind.  In 2008, about 190,000 young people under the age of 21 visited an emergency room for injuries related to alcohol use.

The History of the Legal Drinking Age in the United States

On July 17th 1984, the National Drinking Age Act was passed.  This act raised the drinking age to 21 and from that point is has been rooted in the national fabric since its passage.  The history of the minimum or legal drinking age, however, is not a new phenomenon.  Over the course of American history, there have been shifts in societal thought and policy regarding the drinking age.  In an article entitled “The Grim Neurology of Teenage Drinking” that was published in the New York Times in 2006, author Katy Butler pointed out that in pre-Revolutionary America, young apprentices were given buckets of ale as form of payment after a long workday.

There have been attempts to curb underage drinking and even stopping underage drinking altogether.  In the 1830’s, temperance societies were administering abstinence pledges to schoolchildren.  Temperance societies were formed as a response to the rampant use of distilled beverages such as alcohol that was pervasive at that point. In the 20th century, the legal drinking age has shifted wildly.  Due to the increasing success of temperance societies pushing for the outlawing of all alcohol, the 18th amendment was passed in 1919 ushering the era of Prohibition.

While Prohibition ended with the passage of the 21st amendment in 1933, the drinking age was established at 21 years of age, possibly in compromise with the temperance movement which by that time was on the wane.  From the end of Prohibition to the passage of the National Drinking Age Act in 1984, the individual, states had set their own guidelines regarding the legal drinking age with the expansion of the civil rights movement being the apex of that period.  In the early 1970’s, the passage of the 26th amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18, saw states lower drinking ages to 18, 19 or 20 years old.

By 1984, the federal government backed by MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), ordered all 50 states (through the National Drinking Age Act) to raise their legal drinking age to 21 years of age or suffer cuts in their annual allotted federal highway dollars. By 1987, all states had complied with the National Drinking Age Act.  Groups like MADD heralded the 21 year old drinking age as a victory, since the passage of the act has saved around 17,000 lives since 1988.  However, others have felt that the passage of the National Drinking Age Act has created a culture and climate where underage drinking is hidden and underground.  By some estimations, it is felt that the intensity and frequency of underage drinking as increased since the passage of the 21 year old drinking age.

What About Other Countries Where the Drinking Age is Lower?

There has been debate on whether to lower the drinking age from 21 to 18.  To bolster the argument of lowering the drinking age, proponents will points to European countries in which the drinking ages are lower.  There are common perceptions that young people in European countries are introduced to alcohol in more cultural and familial contexts and by proxy that reduces harmful binge drinking.  Because the United States has set the drinking age to 21, it is felt that young people miss out on those familial contexts where responsible and moderate drinking is the norm.  In turn, young people in America tend to binge drink and do so in private, away from scrutiny.

In reality, do young people in Europe actually drink less and drink more responsibly as a whole?  In a study conducted by the Bettina Freise and Joel Grube from the Prevention Research Center and the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, underage drinking rates from European countries were compared to underage drinking rates in the United States.  Data from the 2007 European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs was used.  In thirty-five European countries, young people were given anonymous self-administered in-school surveys.  The study can be reviewed at the U.S. Department of Justice and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Results of the study showed that a majority of the European countries have higher intoxication rates among young people in comparison to young people in the United States. Moreover, a majority of the European countries in the study show a greater percentage of young people have been intoxicated before age 13 in comparison to American youth.

For example, the study indicated that the percentage of American youth aged 15-16 reporting intoxication within the last thirty days was at 18%.  In Denmark, where the drinking age is 18, the percentage of 15-16 year olds intoxicated in the last thirty days was at 44%.  In Spain, where the drinking age is 16, the percentage was reported at 25%.  However, such wide variances in rates can also be dependent on environmental and cultural factors and there are exceptions.  In France, where the drinking age was 16 at the time of this study (The drinking age in France has since been raised to 18), the rate of intoxication was reported at 18%, which was the same as reported in the United States.

It is important to note, however, that in French culture it is seen as highly offensive to be drunk in public.  Also of note, in context of the study, is that countries such as Italy (where at the time of the study the drinking age was 16), Iceland (where at the time of the study the drinking age was 20) and Belgium (where the minimum drinking age is 15) had lower percentages of underage drinking in the 15-16 year old age group in comparison to American youth.


While the above mentioned study can have multiple interpretations regarding data, there is one main question that can be asked: how are countries like Italy, Iceland, France and Belgium keeping underage drinking rates down while keeping the legal drinking age lower than in the United States?  One can observe that it could be the combination of alcohol as seen in a familial context along with ingrained cultural norms and taboos concerning drinking as a whole.  How can that be extrapolated to the problem of underage drinking in America?

Curbing and preventing underage drinking is complex that can involves a host of factors such as social and environmental factors, genetics, and personality among others.  Some approaches, as outlined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism may include environmental interventions such as enacting zero-tolerance laws or enacting laws that makes alcohol harder to get.  While those environmental approaches can be effective, other levels of intervention, such as school-based intervention programs, efforts to help and empower parents to improve communication with their children concerning alcohol, and individual approaches that aim to change the way young people think about alcohol.

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