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Underage Drinking: The Crime of It All


When community members demand that something be done to reduce crime and violence, how often do they support your efforts to prevent adolescent alcohol use? They might concede that the 9.7 million persons ages 12 to 20 (25.1 percent of this age group) who reported drinking alcohol in the past month, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, broke the law. But they might also quickly add that they do not view underage drinking as a serious crime. Even many underage drinkers probably agree that teens who drive after they have been drinking are committing a crime that can, indeed, lead to serious consequences. Still, they probably don’t see their illegal alcohol use as a big deal or think that it may be linked with what they, and their parents, consider “real crime.” However, preventing underage drinking can be an effective component in combating local crime.

Thanks to persistent hard work by community-based organizations using Town Hall Meetings and other communications tools, more and more adults are recognizing the role that underage drinking plays in lawbreaking among youth. Growing local support for evidence-based environmental measures, such as compliance checks and social host liability, is making a difference.

On May 14, 2013, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) will host Enforcing the Underage Drinking Laws: Accountability and the Role of the Justice System, its addition to this year’s series of underage drinking prevention webinars being presented by members of the Interagency Coordinating Committee on the Prevention of Underage Drinking (ICCPUD). For more information about this webinar and to register, visit the webinar series information page.

OJJDP, and the Underage Drinking Enforcement Training Center (UDETC) that it supports, offers some numbers that might open the eyes (and the minds) of those who dismiss underage drinking as a harmless rite of passage, or a not very serious crime. If injuries, deaths, and the economic costs of underage drinking are the measures used, then teen drinking and driving alone qualifies as a pretty serious crime. According to estimates published online by OJJDP/UDETC, 1,506 traffic fatalities and 36,963 nonfatal traffic injuries in 2009 were the result of teens driving after they had been drinking, with a total estimated economic cost of nearly $10 million. Still, there is considerably, and tragically, much more to the underage drinking crime story.

As part of its contribution to the April 2013 Alcohol Awareness Month observance, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) released an analysis based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The analysis found that underage drinking accounted for an average of three homicides every day during 2010, plus another three teenage deaths from suicide every other day that same year. The deaths of so many young people from violence and self-harm must be counted as a crime in anyone’s book.

Many more young lives are disrupted and damaged because of other crimes that might not have happened had they not first broken the laws regarding alcohol consumption. As the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) states, “Drinking may cause youth to have trouble in school or with the law. Drinking alcohol also is associated with the use of other drugs.” NIAAA findings indicate that underage drinkers get into trouble with the law in ways that include:

  • Assault: More than 690,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are assaulted by another student who has been drinking;

  • Sexual Abuse: More than 97,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape; and

  • Injury: 599,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 receive unintentional injuries while under the influence of alcohol.

Although all crime cannot be attributed to alcohol use, the two are strongly correlated. Similarly, we know that underage drinking prevention cannot eliminate all of the crime and violence in which teenagers may become involved, but stopping adolescent alcohol consumption can certainly increase the proportion of young people who abide by the law and improve the safety of their communities.