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Communities Talk What’s New articles share information to help event organizers plan, host, and evaluate events aimed at mobilizing a community around evidence-based prevention of underage drinking.

Underage Drinking 2013: The Good News and That Other Stuff


Underage Drinking 2013: The Good News and That Other Stuff

At the end of November 2012, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Kathleen Sebelius released a new Report to Congress on the Prevention and Reduction of Underage Drinking. Her message at the beginning of the report begins: “In 2010, alcohol was once again the substance of choice among American youth. In fact, a greater proportion of American young people use alcohol than use other drugs or tobacco, and this use of alcohol by youth under the legal drinking age of 21 has profound negative consequences not just for underage drinkers, but also for their families, their communities, and society as a whole. Despite the modest progress made in recent years, underage drinking remains a serious public health and public safety problem.” But, as noted below, the glass is half-full—as well as half-empty.

The Good News

On December 19, 2012, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) released the results of the annual NIDA-sponsored Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey of the attitudes and practices of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders regarding substance use. The MTF’s welcomed news is that alcohol use among adolescents has continued to decline and is now at the lowest level since 1975, when the MTF survey began. Specifically, from 2007 to 2012, current use of alcohol declined from 15.9 percent to 11.0 percent among 8th graders, from 33.4 percent to 27.6 percent among 10th graders, and from 44.4 percent to 41.5 percent among high school seniors.

Similar declines in underage drinking rates were reported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) when it released its annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health in September 2012. Data collected showed that the rates of past-month drinking by 12- to 20-year-olds had declined from 28.8 percent in 2002 to 25.1 percent in 2011. The rate of binge drinking declined from 19.3 percent to 15.8 percent, and the rate of heavy drinking declined from 6.2 percent to 4.4 percent.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found an even more significant drop over a longer period of time. CDC gathers data from students in grades 9 through 12 every 2 years in its Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS). Among students in these four grades, CDC’s YRBS data for 2011 found that 38.7 percent reported past-month alcohol use, down from 50.8 percent in 1991.

That’s the good news about underage drinking and good cause for you to give yourself and everyone else who supports your organization’s work a vigorous round of applause. It helps all of us to have good evidence to show that prevention works and to tell others confidently that all the efforts and resources invested in preventing underage drinking yield results. But the HHS Secretary’s comments at the beginning of this article probably didn’t strike you as breaking news. You have daily reminders of the pervasiveness and persistence of underage drinking as “a serious public health and public safety problem.”

The Other Stuff

The newest national survey data include other reminders that our work is never done—that each year brings a new audience in need of prevention knowledge. The MTF data reported in December of 2012 included warnings of a possible turnaround in underage drinking. The steady declines in drinking among 10th and 12th graders appear to have halted, while the rate of binge drinking among high school seniors has increased by 2 percent to 24 percent. Meanwhile, research studies and media articles identify new opportunities for minors to begin using alcohol and new pressures on them to do so. Easy Internet access to alcohol; increasing volumes of prodrinking messages in social media; new alcohol marketing strategies; and the popularity of dangerous practices, such as mixing alcohol and energy drinks, among teens and young adults, all pose new challenges to prevention. These and other indicators point to a year ahead when possibly dwindling resources must be stretched to maintain hard-won prevention gains, stop erosion, and apply new strategies and new technologies to counter new risk-taking temptations and behaviors.

Knowing that you are a part of a movement that has already achieved so much to keep young people safe and healthy may renew and strengthen your resolve to move forward again in 2013.