Study: Underage drinkers starting at earlier age
NEW YORK (CNN) -- The problem of binge drinking begins well before teen-agers set foot on a college campus, according to researchers at Columbia University.
A wide-ranging study, which Columbia's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse released Tuesday, found that "America has an epidemic of underage drinking that germinates in elementary and middle schools." More than 5 million high school students admit to binge drinking at least once a month, the study said.
The researchers said many parents are "unwitting co-conspirators," whose ambivalence contributes to the problem of teen drinking.
"Parents tend to see drinking and occasional bingeing as a rite of passage rather than a deadly round of Russian roulette," the study determined.
"College administrators and alumni have [been] ... looking away as students made beer, alcohol and binge drinking a central part of their college experience. The pervasive influence of the entertainment media has glamorized and sexualized alcohol."
The two-year study concluded that kids are trying their first drinks at younger ages. For the class of 1975, 27 percent of the high school graduating class began using alcohol in eighth grade or even earlier. In 1999, that number had risen to 36 percent, the study said.
Government disputes figure
Underage drinkers consumed as much as $27 billion worth of alcohol in 1998 -- $15 billion on beer alone. That figure represents about a quarter of all alcohol sold in the United States that year, the study said.
But the federal government said that the 25 percent figure should be much lower -- 11.4 percent. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration said it reached its conclusion after reviewing government data used in the research. The data came from a 1998 household survey that includes a larger number of 12- to 20-year-olds than the actual ratio in the U.S. population.
Nevertheless, the agency -- a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services -- said that "regardless of any discrepancies between our analysis" of data and the study's reported results, underage drinking remains "a serious problem in the United States."
On its Web site, the Columbia University center acknowledged that it made an oversight in the study by not adjusting the results of the government survey to reflect the actual population of 12- to 20-year-olds in the United States. But the center said that because of other anomalies in the survey, the 11.4 percent figure is too low and it stands by its research.
"But whether children and teens drink 15, 25 or 30 percent of the alcohol consumed, the reality is that America has an underage drinking epidemic and alcohol is by far the drug most used by children and teens and poses the greatest threat to their well-being," the statement said.
A liquor industry group, while acknowledging that teen drinking is a "serious problem," also disputed the study findings, saying the 25 percent figure was greatly exaggerated.
"If you believe their statistics, it means of those who actually drink under the age of 20, they'd have to be drinking somewhere between 120 to 200 drinks a month," said Peter Cressy, president and CEO of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. "We know that's simply not true."
Report finds no gender gap
While the study did not conclude that the overall number of student drinkers is on the rise, it did establish that alcohol is "the No. 1 drug of choice" for teen-agers in the United States. By their senior year in high school, 80 percent of teen-agers had tried alcohol, compared with 47 percent who had experimented with marijuana and 29 percent who had tried another illegal drug, the study found.
Moreover, girls were drinking as much as boys. "Male and female ninth-graders are just as likely to drink and binge drink," the study said.
Researchers said the costs of underage drinking to society are enormous. Alcohol was a contributing factor in the top three causes of death among teens: accidents, homicide and suicide.
"Teen-agers who drink are seven times likelier to engage in sex and twice as likely to have sex with four or more partners than those who do not," researchers said. "Such behavior can lead to unprotected sex with the increased risk of AIDS, other sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy."
Researchers analyzed existing data and surveyed 900 adults on their attitudes toward underage drinking.
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