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06-30 Teen drinking and alcohol advertising: Is there a link?

Teen drinking and alcohol advertising: Is there a link?

Teenagers drink. In fact, underage drinkers tend to consume even more drinks per occasion than adult drinkers.

According to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), roughly 5.4 million people (or 14.2 percent) between the ages 12 and 20 not only drink alcohol, but engage in binge drinking behavior. Binge drinking is defined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) as drinking five or more alcoholic drinks on the same day in the past month. The NSDUH also found that 1.4 million adolescents engaged in heavy drinking — a behavior even more dangerous than binge drinking — which SAMHSA defines as drinking five or more drinks on each of five or more days in the past month.

Adolescents drink so much that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people between the ages of 12 and 20 drink 11 percent of ALL alcohol consumed in the country. Ninety percent of this alcohol is consumed during binge drinking.

The risks associated with underage drinking

Underage drinking isn’t only illegal — it’s dangerous and sometimes deadly.

Statistics from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism indicate that over 4,000 people under the age of 21 die each year from alcohol-related car crashes, homicides, suicides, alcohol poisoning and accidents such as falls and drowning. In 2008, more than 190,000 people younger than 21 visited the emergency room for alcohol-related injuries.

Teenagers who drink heavily also tend to engage in high-risk behavior. According to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, within the last month 10 percent of high school students drove drunk and 22 percent of high school students drove with a person who had recently been drinking.

Underage drinking also predicts future substance addiction — the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that people who started drinking before age 15 are six times more likely to struggle with alcoholism and alcohol abuse than those who waited until age 21.

For these reasons and more (for instance, underage drinkers are more likely to have trouble in school), underage drinking shouldn’t be seen as a rite of passage, but rather a high-risk scenario that requires careful intervention.

How advertising influences teen drinking

One way in which lawmakers attempt to reduce alcohol consumption by minors is through regulating alcohol advertising. For instance, alcohol advertisements are not allowed to make false health or social claims (e.g., they are not allowed to say that alcohol will make you a better athlete or more popular). However, these regulations may not be sufficient.

A study published last month in the journal Addiction reviewed 96 publications that examined the influence of alcohol marketing on adolescents. The majority of the studies found content that could be considered potentially harmful to adolescents, primarily as themes that appeal to adolescent boys. The meta-analysis also found that youth exposure to alcohol advertising has increased over time despite industry regulations, and that television, radio, print, digital and outdoor ads about alcohol all result in high levels of youth exposure.

Whether these advertisements directly contribute to underage drinking remains a mystery, however, since it’s difficult (if not impossible) to tease out the media influence from peer pressure, societal norms and other factors that may convince teenagers to start drinking.

One silver lining: Rates of underage drinking are significantly lower than they were 25 years ago. Perhaps alcohol advertising regulations are making a difference, even though most ads are still flashy and appeal to teenagers — or perhaps public service announcements about underage drinking are making ads a little easier to ignore.

Sovereign Health of Rancho San Diego is a leading behavioral health care provider that treats teen substance use, mental health and co-occurring disorders. We strive to educate not only our adolescent patients, but also their family members to make recovery as smooth as possible. For more information about our teen alcohol treatment program or any of our other services, please contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer for Sovereign Health, where she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at

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