Youth Drinking Trends Stabilize, Consumption Remains High
Although the prevalence of underage drinking has decreased since
its peak in the late 1970s, drinking by youth has stabilized over
the past decade at disturbingly high levels. The findings, part
of a new analysis of youth drinking trends by researchers at the
National Institutes of Health (NIH), appear in the September, 2004
issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
“While these data confirm the reduction in underage drinking
rates since the 1970s, they also underscore the need to redouble
our efforts against this important problem,” says Ting-Kai
Li, M.D., Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and
Alcoholism at the NIH. “The authors have demonstrated an important
means for monitoring long-term changes in alcohol use patterns that
will serve us well in these efforts.”
Since 1975, information about drinking by persons age 18 and younger
has been collected by a number of ongoing national surveys, including
the Monitoring the Future (MTF) study, the Youth Risk Behavior Survey
(YRBS), and the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA).
These surveys have shown that almost 80 percent of adolescents have
consumed alcohol by the time they are 12th-graders, and that about
12 percent of 8th-graders have consumed five or more drinks on a
single occasion within the past two weeks.
Although year-to-year differences in drinking patterns in these
surveys are often statistically significant, such short-term comparisons
provide little useful information about long-term trends, or changes
in drinking habits over multi-year periods.
In the current study, researchers Vivian B. Faden, Ph.D., of the
NIAAA, and Michael P. Fay, Ph.D., of the National Cancer Institute
applied “joinpoint” statistical methodology to analyze
trends in youth drinking data collected in three surveys: the MTF,
the YRBS, and the NHSDA. Joinpoint analysis uses sophisticated statistical
methodology to look at all available years of data from a survey
simultaneously to identify significant changes in direction in trends.
“We applied this technique to three different surveys to
see if joinpoint statistics tell the same story in terms of trends
across surveys,” explains Dr. Faden, Associate Director of
NIAAA’s Division of Epidemiology and Prevention Research.
“This approach reveals information about trends in underage
drinking heretofore unavailable, and strengthens the conclusions
we draw regarding underage drinking trends.”
The analyses showed an increase in youth drinking in the late 1970s,
followed by a long period of decreases until the early 1990s. The
authors note that the decline in underage drinking rates during
this period probably reflects the increase in the minimum legal
drinking age from 18 to 21. Since the early 1990s, all three surveys
included in this analysis indicate relatively stable prevalence
rates for underage drinking.
“Stable is better than up,” notes Dr. Faden. “However,
the current stability in youth drinking prevalence is quite worrisome.”
Rates for any alcohol use in the past 30 days range from 19.6 percent
of 8th graders to 48.6 percent of 12th graders. The data also show
that more than 12 percent of 8th graders and nearly 30 percent of
12th graders report drinking five or more drinks in a row in the
past two weeks.
“Much remains to be done to get those numbers moving down
again,” says Dr. Faden. “We need to re-examine the approaches
we have taken to prevent underage drinking, so that in another ten
years we can report a downturn in this high-prevalence behavior
instead of a stable situation.”
As policy makers implement strategies to target underage drinking,
the kind of trend analyses demonstrated by Drs. Faden and Fay will
help provide the most comprehensive and reliable information on
trends in alcohol use by underage drinkers.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a component
of the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health
and Human Services, conducts and supports approximately 90 percent
of the U.S. research on the causes, consequences, prevention, and
treatment of alcohol abuse, alcoholism, and alcohol problems and
disseminates research findings to general, professional, and academic
audiences. Additional alcohol research information and publications
are available at www.niaaa.nih.gov.