The Consequences of Underage Drinking

By Tom Atwood
May 1, 2006

Alcohol drinkers are getting younger all the time, and the effects are seen everywhere. Dr. J. Edward Hill, president of the American Medical Association, told the 2005 Annual Texas Institute on Substance Abuse and Treatment that underage drinking costs the U.S. economy $4.7 million every hour, almost $105 million a day, and over $53 billion per year. ABC News reported that college drinking alone contributes to 1400 student deaths, 500,000 injuries, and 70,000 cases of sexual assault. Underage drinking is associated with traffic accidents, school failure, delinquency, unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, and family conflicts.

The NIH News (9/14/04) stated, “Alcohol is the drug most used by young Americans. The risky behaviors often associated with underage drinking can have devastating and life-long consequences. Forty percent of those who start drinking before age fifteen meet criteria for alcoholism at some point in their lives.” Underage drinkers affect not only their own well-being, but also the health and welfare of those around them.

Joseph A. Califano, former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare and currently president of the Center on Alcohol and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA), concluded, “Underage drinking has reached epidemic proportions in America.” CASA reported that underage drinkers consume 25 percent of the alcohol consumed in the U.S. and that it “damages the young brain, interferes with mental and social development, and interrupts academic progress.”

A very serious consequence of underage drinking is the part it plays in addiction. Eighty-seven percent of drinking adults began before age twenty-one, and adult alcohol abuse is most common among those who began to drink in their early to mid-teens. In fact, the average age for a new drinker is twelve, and very few adults begin drinking alcohol after they reach the legal age.

More than one parent, in dealing with an intoxicated son or daughter, has said with relief, “I’m glad it’s only alcohol!” They fail to grasp how serious alcohol is. In addition to its immediate effects, alcohol opens the door to greater “highs” with other drugs.

The entertainment industry glamorizes alcohol and seldom realistically depicts the sad effects of abuse. Of eighty-one G-rated animated films, a shocking 34 percent associated alcohol with wealth and 19 percent with sexual activity. Beer advertising appeals to kids by using images such as talking lizards or a rock star ferret. Continued marketing to the very young is critical because two-thirds of alcohol sales are to underage and problem drinkers.

Since drinking is a major factor in the three leading causes of teen death — accidents, homicides, and suicides — then what kind of person supplies it for them? Liquor outlets that sell illegally to teens have always existed, and having an older friend purchase it is common. The business of creating false IDs is very lucrative, especially in college communities.

But CASA reports the sad news that most young drinkers get their alcohol in their own home or in a friend’s home. In fact, younger drinkers identify homes as “the most common setting for drinking.” CASA concludes that teens have easy access to alcohol, and in the end “parents are too often unwitting co-conspirators who see underage drinking and occasional bingeing as a rite of passage rather than a deadly round of Russian roulette.” The AMA’s Dr. Hill equates parental approval of teens drinking at home with parental approval of teen sex parties. These parents, even those who claim to be Christians, are naïve, deceived, or corrupted, and are utterly failing in the basics of properly training a child.

Like all problems affecting our families, teen alcohol use must be lovingly but firmly addressed. Here are some starters:

  1. Foster strong spiritual health. One analysis found a 58 percent increase in teen drinking where there was a low religious commitment. A Christ-honoring family and a Bible-teaching church are minimal.
  2. In love, set rules and enforce consequences. Remember, tough love is tough!
  3. Hold kids accountable for where they go, who their friends are, and what they watch or listen to. Garbage in–garbage out!
  4. Set a good example. Adults, too, have no need for addictive, mood-altering substances. No one needs alcohol to relax. “Pay careful attention, then, to how you walk–not as unwise people but as wise” (Eph. 5:15).
  5. Use your influence. Make your voice heard in discussions of curbing alcohol ads on TV, listing alcohol as a drug in substance abuse warnings, and holding parents legally liable for the alcohol use of their children.

Tom Atwood is a minister living in Oxford, Mississippi.

Further Learning

Learn more about: Family, Addictions, Substance Abuse, Parenting,

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