By the time children are seniors in high school, about 30 percent are drinking heavily at least once a month. And 40 percent of full-time college students and more than 36 percent of other young adults (ages 18-22) report heavy drinking.
The consequences and costs of youthful alcohol use are enormous. Many of these harmful consequences are immediate and all too evident—injuries due to impaired driving or violence, sexual assault and unwanted pregnancies, and educational failure. The best available estimate places the annual social cost of underage drinking at $53 billion, far exceeding the costs of youthful use of illegal drugs. In recognition of the enormity of the problem, Congress asked the National Academies to develop a strategy for reducing and preventing underage drinking.
This is a daunting challenge. To what extent can public policy really affect underage drinking when alcohol is so widely used and approved by adults and when youthful indulgence is so often overlooked or condoned? After all, “kids will be kids.” Presumably, the answer depends on whether instruments of public policy can affect the main determinants of underage drinking, particularly the factors associated with the most harmful features of underage alcohol use.
Some people believe that the dangers of underage drinking are at least partly attributable to the very fact that it is “underage” (i.e., illegal) conduct. Obviously, lowering the minimum drinking age would (by definition) reduce the amount of “underage” drinking. More importantly, according to some experts, at least some of the harmful drinking practices of underage drinkers would not occur if their drinking were lawful. People who hold this view often point to European countries with lower drinking ages where, they claim, young people learn to drink under the supervision of adults and are not as inclined to drink heavily. The facts do not support this view, however. As the committee demonstrates in this report, countries with lower drinking ages are not better off than the United States in terms of the harmful consequences of youths' drinking. And one thing we do know for sure is that raising the drinking age to 21 in the United States has saved many thousands of lives. That is why Congress enacted the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, using the leverage of federal highway funds to induce every state to raise the drinking age to 21.
It turns out that the patterns and consequences of youthful drinking are closely related to the overall extent and patterns of drinking in the society, and they are affected by the same factors that affect the patterns of adult consumption. From this standpoint, it is possible that the most effective way to reduce the extent and adverse consequences of youthful drinking would be to reduce the extent and consequences of adult drinking. It is clear, however, that Congress intended for the committee to focus on youth drinking, rather than developing a strategy targeting adult drinking as well as youth drinking. This is what the committee has done.
The report outlines the committee's proposed strategy in detail. Substance abuse prevention is typically targeted on young people themselves—to persuade them to abstain and try to keep the dangerous substance out of their hands. At the center of the committee's strategy, however, is the judgment that parents and adults must be the main target of a strategy to reduce and prevent underage drinking. In requesting this report, Congress was specifically seeking advice about the message that should be conveyed to young people, especially in a national media campaign. However, in the committee's view, if we do no more than pepper kids with anti-drinking messages, things are not likely to get any better. We have to do more. We have to resolve, as a national community, to reduce underage drinking and the problems associated with it and to take comprehensive measures to achieve this goal. If we do this without equivocation, there is a reasonable prospect of success. And success—measured in many thousands of young lives and futures saved—is well worth the investment.
Richard J. Bonnie, Chair
Committee on Developing a Strategy to Reduce and Prevent Underage Drinking
National Academies Press (US), Washington (DC)
National Research Council (US) and Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Developing a Strategy to Reduce and Prevent Underage Drinking; Bonnie RJ, O'Connell ME, editors. Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2004. Preface.