Scope of Underage Drinking

OJJDP is supporting
the States’s efforts to combat the underage drinking problem by funding
the Enforcing the
Underage Drinking Laws Program

The scope of underage
drinking is pervasive (link to extent facts) among United States youth.
Drinking among adolescents leads to many social and economic costs (link
to consequences facts), including alcohol-related traffic fatalities.
The enforcement and improvement of the laws (link to law facts) related
to underage drinking is an important strategy in preventing youth alcohol

What is the extent of drinking
among adolescents?

Initiation of alcohol
use: The 1997 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) found that nearly one-third
(31.1%) of students had first drunk alcohol (more than a few sips) before
13 years of age. The 1997 Monitoring the Future survey (MTF) reported
that the peak years of initiation of alcohol use are in seventh through
ninth grades. [CDC, 1998; NIDA, 1998]

Current alcohol use:
According to the YRBS, half (50.8%) of all high school students currently
use alcohol. [CDC, 1998]

Heavy drinking: Two
national surveys of high school students have found widespread binge drinking
(5 or more drinks of alcohol at a time) among youth. The YRBS found that
one-third (33.4%) of all students had an occasion of heavy drinking in
the past month; and the MTF reported one-fourth (25%) of 10th graders
and almost one-third (31%) of 12th graders had an occurrence of binge
drinking in the past 2 weeks. [CDC, 1998; NIDA, 1998]

Alcohol use among
college students: According to the College Alcohol Study, a national survey
of college students, two in five (42.7%) students reported binge drinking
within the past 2 weeks. [Weschler et al., 1998]

Youth access to alcohol:
Young people report no difficulty in obtaining alcohol from commercial
or noncommercial sources. [Minneapolis Department of Health and Family
Support, 1998; O’Leary et al., 1994; Wagennar et al., 1993]

What are the consequences of
underage drinking?

Fatalities: In 1994,
underage drinking killed an estimated 6,350 youth ages 12-20, more than
6 times the fatalities resulting from other illicit drug use (980). [Miller
& Covington, 1999]

Alcohol-involved traffic
fatalities: One-third of all deaths for people ages 15-20 result from
motor vehicle crashes. In 1997, more than one-third of these motor vehicle
fatalities involved alcohol. [NHTSA, 1998]

BAC levels of alcohol-involved
traffic fatalities: More 18- and 19-year olds died in low BAC (between
.01 and .09) alcohol-related crashes than any other ages. In fact, 17-,
18-, 19-, 20-, and 21-year olds are the top five ages of people that die
in low BAC crashes. [NHTSA, 1998] This statistic shows that even low levels
of alcohol are dangerous for young people.

Rate of death for
licensed drivers: For every 100,000 licensed drivers, young drinking drivers
are involved in fatal crashes at approximately twice the rate of drivers
aged 21 and older. [NHTSA, 1998]

Economic costs attributable
to underage drinking: Costs of underage drinking from new costs paper
[miller paper, 1999]

Future alcohol disorder
problems: People who begin drinking before age 15 are four times as likely
to develop alcohol dependence and more than twice as likely to develop
alcohol abuse than those who delay drinking until age 21. [Grant &
Dawson, 1997]

Academic problems:
A clear relationship exists between alcohol use and grade-point average
among college students: students receiving grades of D or F drink three
times as much as those who earn As. [Presley & Meilman, 1996]

Risk of physical violence:
A national survey of college students found that binge drinkers were 3.5
times more likely than their non-bingeing counterparts to have been a
victim of physical violence. [Presley et al., 1997]

Risk of sexual victimization:
Three-fourths of college students who were victims of unwanted sexual
intercourse said they were drinking or using other drugs when they were
victimized. [Presley, et al., 1997]

What are the laws related to underage drinking?

A host of laws, ordinances,
and policies form the framework of the effort to reduce underage drinking.
The ordinances fall into three categories:

  • Commercial availability:
    focuses on the practices of alcohol retailers such as liquor or grocery
    stores and bars
  • Social/public
    availability: focuses on noncommercial sources of alcohol (such as older
    friends) and noncommercial venues where young people consume alcohol
    (such as parties), and
  • Youth possession:
    focuses on deterring young people from attempting to purchase or consume

See Regulatory Strategies
for Preventing Youth Access to Alcohol: Best Practices for details on
specific regulations and effectiveness.

Minimum drinking age
laws: It is illegal in all 50 States and DC for alcoholic beverages to
be sold to individuals under the age of 21. State laws regarding possession
and consumption vary. See NTSB chart of laws.

Enforcement of laws:
The use of compliance checks to enforce the minimum drinking age laws
has been demonstrated to reduce sales of alcohol to minors. [Preusser
et al., 1994; Wolfson et al., 1996]

Prosecution of violations
to laws: Drinking violations by minors are rarely prosecuted. Even rarer
are prosecutions against retailers. [OIG, 1991; Wagennar & Wolfson,

Impact of laws: NHTSA
estimates that the drinking age laws have reduced traffic fatalities,
saving 18,220 lives since 1975. [NHTSA, 1999]

Fact sheet compiled 9/99. See list of research articles (link to Selected
Resources) for full citations to references.

Scope of Underage Drinking
Scroll to top