Alcohol and Teen Drinking
A child who reaches age 21 without
smoking, abusing alcohol or using drugs
is virtually certain never to do so.
- Joseph A. Califano, Jr., Chairman and President,
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University
Alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence are not only adult problems — they also affect a
significant number of adolescents and young adults between the ages of 12 and 20, even though
drinking under the age of 21 is illegal.
The average age when youth first try alcohol is 11 years for boys and 13 years
By age 14, 41 percent of children have had least one drink.
The average age at which Americans begin drinking regularly is 15.9 years old.
Teens who begin drinking before age 15 are five times more likely to develop
alcohol dependence than those who begin drinking at age 21.
An early age of drinking onset is also associated with alcohol-related violence
not only among persons under age 21 but among adults as well.
It has been estimated that over three million teenagers are out-and-out
alcoholics. Several million more have a serious drinking problem that they cannot
manage on their own.
Annually, more than 5,000 deaths of people under age 21 are linked to
The three leading causes of death for 15- to 24-year-olds are automobile
crashes, homicides and suicides -- alcohol is a leading factor in all three.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), The Surgeon General's Call to Action
to Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking. HHS, Office of the Surgeon General, 2007.
While drinking may be a singular problem behavior for some, research suggests that for others it
may be an expression of general adolescent turmoil that includes other problem behaviors and
that these behaviors are linked to unconventionality, impulsiveness, and sensation-seeking.
Binge drinking, often beginning around age 13, tends to increase during adolescence, peak in
young adulthood (ages 18-22), then gradually decrease. Individuals who increase their binge
drinking from age 18 to 24 and those who consistently binge drink at least once a week during
this period may have problems attaining the goals typical of the transition from adolescence to
young adulthood (e.g., marriage, educational attainment, employment, and financial
Dependence on alcohol and other drugs is also associated with several mental health
problems, such as:
• oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
• antisocial personality disorder
Whether anxiety and depression lead to, or are consequences of, alcohol abuse is not known.
Alcohol use among adolescents has also been associated with considering, planning, attempting,
and completing suicide. Research does not indicate whether drinking causes suicidal behavior, only
that the two behaviors are correlated.
Parents' drinking behavior and favorable attitudes about drinking have been positively associated
with adolescents' initiating and continuing drinking. Children who were warned about alcohol by
their parents and children who reported being closer to their parents were less likely to start
Lack of parental support, monitoring, and communication have been significantly related to
frequency of drinking, heavy drinking, and drunkenness among adolescents. Harsh, inconsistent
discipline and hostility or rejection toward children have also been found to significantly predict
adolescent drinking and alcohol-related problems.
Peer drinking and peer acceptance of drinking have also been associated with adolescent
The most common and effective way for an individual to combat his or her addictive behaviors is
through a self-help support group, with advice and support from a health care professional.
Treatment should also involve family members because family history often plays a role in the
origins of the problem and successful treatment cannot take place in isolation.
The National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Routing Service provides a toll-free telephone
number, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), offering various resource information. Through this service you
can speak directly to a representative concerning alcohol and other drugs, request printed
material on alcohol or other drugs, or obtain local substance abuse treatment referral information
in your State.
Information provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Surgeon General
and the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information. To learn more about alcohol and other
drugs of abuse, contact NCADI at 1-800-729-6686.