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Grownups Give Booze to Underage Drinkers

A whopping 650,000 young adults under age 21 say a grownup -- in some cases a parent -- has supplied them with alcohol, according to a report released Thursday by the U.S Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

This, despite the fact that the federal government virtually outlawed under-21 drinking in 1984, when Congress decided to withhold highway funds from states that didn't make 21 the legal age limit.

The survey, which asked 158,000 people ages 12 to 20 detailed questions about the behaviors and social situations surrounding underage drinking, turned up some other unsettling data. Here are some key findings:

- More than half of all people aged 12 to 20 had engaged in underage drinking in their lifetime, ranging from 11.0 percent of 12 year olds to 85.5 percent of 20 year olds.

- An average of 3.5 million people aged 12 to 20 each year meet the diagnostic criteria for having an alcohol use disorder (dependence or abuse).

- About one in five people in this age group (7.2 million people) have engaged in binge drinking -- consuming five or more drinks on at least one occasion in the past month.

- The vast majority of current underage drinkers reported being with two or more people the last time they drank; those who were with two or more people consumed an average of 4.9 drinks on that occasion, compared with 3.1 drinks for those who were with one other person and 2.9 drinks for those who were alone.

- Among those aged 12 to 14 the rate of current drinking was higher for females (7.7 percent) than males (6.3 percent), about equal for females and males among those aged 15 to 17 (27.6 and 27.3 percent, respectively), and lower for females than males among those aged 18 to 20 (47.9 vs. 54.4 percent).

I have some sympathy for young adults between 18 and 21, whom we deem old enough to enlist in the military but not to go out for a drink afterward. And it's hard for parents, too, from what I hear, to maintain a no-alcohol policy for kids in this age group, especially when they come home on break from college.

But the law's the law. And it's hard to believe that upping the drinking age hasn't saved young lives, though some do argue that point. As one who came of age when you could legally drink at age 18, I am both grateful and baffled that I made it out alive. (Let's just say there was lots of driving around with cases of beer.)

I'm curious to see the reaction to this report: will the new data spur parents to talk with their teens and young-adult children about responsible alcohol use, as the folks at SAMHSA hope they will? Or will this reignite debate about what the legal drinking age should be?

SAMHSA plans to incorporate the study's findings into a public-awareness campaign aimed at curbing underage drinking.

I'll drink to that.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  June 30, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health  
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There's certainly room for healthy debate on several issues surrounding the drinking age in this country.

In regards to adults aged 18-20 who are not legally allowed to drink, in many cases parents may feel that it's actually safer to allow these men and women to drink at home, than to drive somewhere to drink and then drive back home.

Also, I would argue that it should be a parent's choice to allow children to have a glass of wine with dinner or in similar settings.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 30, 2008 9:37 AM | Report abuse

Uh, Jennifer, you might want to check on your "facts" about the law. Many states (perhaps most, I can't remember) allow parents to give their own children alcohol when at home. So, no, the law is not as clear-cut as you suggest. In fact, there was a recent Time magazine article on this issue.

Posted by: Ryan | June 30, 2008 10:18 AM | Report abuse

If you want the facts on drinking for adults between the ages of 18 and 21, you should check out

Also, this blog should have mentioned that the lowered drinking age merely shifted the deaths from drinking to 21-year-olds and has produced an increase in binge drinking among young adults. I am in favor of letting parents teach their kids how to drink responsibly before they are out of the house on their own. It is the same as driving responsibly, or learning the internet.

Posted by: Tricia Long | June 30, 2008 11:04 AM | Report abuse

Please don't assume that you can extrapolate your prohibitionist Puritan culture to all families in the country. This is a diverse country and plenty of families (particularly those with international/immigrant backgrounds) are nowhere near as uptight as you in sharing alcohol with their children. This is legal and common in many of the more "normal" parts of the country such as the Northeast. Rather than worrying about these families I think you should take some time to examine your own views, which many people would consider ridiculous. It must be true what they say, that American parents are some of the anxious and obsessive ones on the planet!

Posted by: ESB | June 30, 2008 11:26 AM | Report abuse

Here in WI, it's perfectly legal for a child of any age to drink with the permission and in the presence of his or her over-21 parent, legal guardian, or spouse. They can do so in public (though bartenders and wait staff can decline to serve them or let them in to a 21+ venue) and in private.

I don't think parents should be getting their 12-year-olds (or 20-year-olds) drunk, but there's a big difference between that and letting your adult-but-not-21 child have a glass of wine or a beer at a family dinner.

Posted by: Stacie | June 30, 2008 12:18 PM | Report abuse

Parents are allowed to give children wine, beer, etc. It is an important part of some religions, after all.

Children must be taught to drink appropriately, as they are taught manners and other customs. That's my job as a parent--school won't teach that, and college surely won't. If they aren't taught, they are much more likely to binge drink, a habit that comes from being denied alcohol rather than permitted it.

The over-21 law is flat-out bad news. Asking someone to learn how to drink responsibly at 21 is illogical--they should learn that at 11, 12, 13.

Posted by: dynagirl | June 30, 2008 1:04 PM | Report abuse

It is time to end to end the 21 legal drinking age and institute a new 18 drinking age because it is the age of majority. Ronald Reagan made a huge mistake in 1984 to infantilize 18-20 year olds. Our culture must stop treating 18-20 year olds like children.

Support Choose Responsibilty!

Posted by: The Ed | June 30, 2008 3:48 PM | Report abuse

Why don't we just abolish all laws? Smoking in public places will be brought back. Free use of illegal drugs by anybody, anywhere, any age. Speed limits will be erased. Anybody can own any kind of firearm they choose. Drinking age will be non-existent. Just let everybody do what they want.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 30, 2008 4:40 PM | Report abuse

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