Binge Drinking on the Decline, Except in College

DrinksResearchers at the Washington University School of Medicine have linked the increase in the U.S. drinking age to a drop in binge drinking over the past 20 years (the drinking age was increased in the early to mid-1980’s). In a study published in the July issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, a team led by Dr. Richard Grucza, an assistant professor of psychiatry, analyzed data from over 500,000 participants gathered between 1976 and 2006.

Binge drinking, defined as having 5 or more drinks on one occasion, occurs most often among young men. However, the gap between men’s and women’s drinking is getting smaller, as men’s binge drinking has declined while young women’s drinking is on the rise.  When the researchers examined the data more closely, they found differences between college students and their same-aged peers who were not at school. Men who were no longer students saw a 30% drop in binge drinking rates, while rates in male college students were basically unchanged since 1976. For women, binge drinking increased by 20% for non-students and 40% for those in college!

Dr. Grucza contends that the increase in the legal drinking age has reduced the number of high school students with peers who drink; in addition, the fact that it is more difficult for teens to gain access to alcohol has also contributed to the decline. In an interview posted on the Washington University website, Dr. Grucza had this to say:

Many proponents of lowering the drinking age argue that the higher drinking age has led to more binge drinking … There is no evidence to support that. Our study and other studies show the higher age has decreased the amount of alcohol consumed by young people, the number of binge-drinking episodes overall, the number of fatal car crashes and other adverse alcohol-related outcomes. There may be good, philosophical arguments about why the drinking age should be lower than 21, but our study demonstrates the higher minimum drinking age has been good for public health.

Dr. Grucza also argued that further research is needed to investigate the differences between college students and the general population.

What are the implications of this study for parents? These data argue against the notion that allowing teens to drink at home “where they’ll be supervised” is necessarily the safest or best solution. Dr. Grucza suggests that reducing access to alcohol has resulted in a reduction in overall drinking rates among teens. When we talked about internet safety, we noted that, even though parental filters don’t necessarily eliminate access to inappropriate online material, they give teens a message about what parents feel is appropriate for them to see and what isn’t. Parents who provide access to alcohol may suggest that underage drinking is acceptable, which may give teens, whose decision-making and planning abilities are still under development, a dangerous message. Nonetheless, I think Dr. G would agree that it’s important for parents to talk to their kids about drinking, and to brainstorm for solutions to reduce the likelihood of drinking and driving.

You can read more about Dr. Grucza’s study here:

Grucza RA, Norbert KE, Bierut LJ. Binge drinking among youths and young adults in the United States: 1979-2006. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 48: July, 2009. pp 692-702.

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