Underage drinking is the blanket term used to describe any amount of alcohol consumption by a person below the legally mandated age of 21. Binge drinking is the term used to describe the rapid consumption of enough alcohol to reach or exceed the nationwide U.S. standard for legal intoxication. In a report published in August 2014, researchers at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration looked at the differences in underage binge drinking participation that exist between America’s 50 states, as well as between separate regions within any given state.
Anyone who consumes alcohol before reaching his or her 21st birthday qualifies as an illegal, underage drinker, even if he or she drinks in the company of a parent or other supervising adult. According to figures compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly one out of every 10 preteens, teenagers and young adults between the ages of 12 and 20 (11 percent) consumes alcohol despite the existence of nationwide underage drinking prohibition. Compared to adult drinkers, underage drinkers typically consume larger amounts of alcohol on any given drinking occasion. In addition, underage drinkers binge on alcohol at an unusually high rate.
Nearly 200,000 underage alcohol consumers require emergency treatment every year. Additional well-documented consequences of drinking before the age of 21 include increased risks for such things as academic underperformance, altered brain development, altered sexual development, involvement in unsafe sex, thought or memory difficulties, sexual or physical assault, suicide and involvement in additional forms of substance abuse. When compared to someone who only starts drinking after reaching the legal age, any person who starts drinking before the age of 15 has a drastically increased chance of developing alcohol use disorder (alcohol abuse/alcoholism).
An alcohol binge is an episode of short-term drinking that produces legal drunkenness in the span of a couple of hours. Men and boys typically reach a legally intoxicated state when they consume at least five alcohol servings in a single episode, while women and girls typically reach such a state when they consume at least four alcohol servings. Since many people’s drinks contain more than a single alcohol serving, it’s fairly easy to lose track of the amount of alcohol consumed during a binge. As a rule, binge drinkers share the same types of alcohol-related risks that affect underage drinkers. This fact holds true, in large part, because underage drinkers consume over 90 percent of their total alcohol intake while participating in binging episodes.
The report published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration contains data gathered from the 2010, 2011 and 2012 versions of an annual project called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). This survey uses questionnaire data submitted by a nationally representative group of Americans age 12 or older to track ongoing trends in substance use and substance treatment. In addition to breaking down the submitted data on a state-by-state basis, the NSDUH breaks down the 50 states (and the federal District of Columbia) into 363 sub-regions. Altogether, 94,200 preteens, teens and adults between the ages of 12 and 20 answered NSDUH questionnaires over the three years under consideration.
The researchers concluded that roughly 16 percent of all Americans in the targeted age range binge drink. The states with the highest overall per capita levels of underage binge drinking participation include New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa and North Dakota. Frequency of underage binge drinking commonly varies widely within any single state. The lowest reported rate (9.2 percent) occurred among preteens, teenagers and young adults living in Shelby County, Tennessee. Conversely, the highest reported rate (46.3 percent) occurred among preteens, teens and young adults living in a portion of Washington, D.C. designated as Ward 2.
Fifteen of the 16 sub-regions with the highest rates for underage binge drinking are evenly distributed between the Northeast, the South and the Midwest; the West also contains one of the most severely affected sub-regions. Conversely, nine of the 16 sub-regions with the lowest rates for underage binge drinking are located in the South; the West contains six of these minimally affected sub-regions, while the Midwest contains one. The report’s authors believe that the NSDUH findings give public health officials a critical tool for devising strategies capable of effectively limiting underage alcohol binging across the U.S.