The proportion of American children who start drinking alcohol in or before eighth grade has increased by nearly one-third since 1975, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University in New York.
Boys no longer do the bulk of the drinking. Female ninth-graders are just as likely to drink as their male counterparts, new CASA statistics show.
"By any public health standard, America has an epidemic of underage drinking that germinates in elementary and middle schools and erupts on college campuses, where alcohol is implicated in date rape, drop outs, and suicides," warns Joseph A. Califano Jr., CASA president and former U.S. secretary of health, education and welfare.
CASA's recent report, "Teen Tipplers: America's Underage Drinking Epidemic," is a 145-page culmination of two years' research on causes and consequences of, and possible solutions to, the rise in underage drinking.
In part, the alcohol and entertainment industries are to blame, the report finds. Children and teens are bombarded with TV ads glorifying beer during sports programs, and images like Budweiser's talking lizards have tremendous youth appeal.
The alcohol industry also lures minors with sweet-tasting, colorfully packaged drinks. More than 40% of teens have tried beverages like Tequiza and Smirnoff Ice.
Meanwhile, the entertainment industry has glamorized and sexualized alcohol in many children's movies. An analysis of 81 G-rated animated films revealed that nearly 50% showed characters using alcohol, often without consequence. In addition, 34% of the movies equated alcohol with wealth, 19% with sexual activity.
While the alcohol and entertainment industries may be influencing minors to drink, "we have to point the finger at ourselves," Califano says. Children cite other people's houses as the most common setting for drinking. And one-third of sixth-and ninth-graders get alcohol from their own homes. "Parents tend to see drinking and occasional bingeing as a rite of passage, rather than a deadly round of Russian roulette."
Alcohol is linked to the top three causes of teen deaths: suicide, homicide, and accidents, including traffic fatalities and drowning. Alcohol can also play a role in irresponsible and potentially dangerous sexual behavior. Compared with teens who don't drink, teenage drinkers are seven times likelier to have sex and twice as likely to have sex with four or more partners. Alcohol-influenced sexual behavior can result in unprotected sex, increasing the risk of AIDS, other sexually transmitted diseases, and pregnancy, Califano says. …