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Under Age Drinking: Nothing New but Very Worrisome

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Jun 30th 2008

 Interestingly a study just released reports that teenagers between the ages of 12 and twenty one years old are drinking and have access to alcohol from adults at home. This should not be surprising news.

The fact that many underage adolescents are drinking should be a matter of concern to parents across the nation because of the death rate among young people as a result of alcohol intoxication. Whether it's from driving under the influence of alcohol, using bad judgement and engaging in risky behavior while drunk, alcohol poisoning as a result of binge drinking or suicide while drunk and depressed, under age drinking is a very serious health concern for the nation.

Why is it that alcohol is made so easily available by adults?

The answer to this question is the fact that too many adults continue to view beer, wine and whiskey as benign substances. In point of fact, not only are these drinks viewed as benign by many adults of all ages, but they tend to romanticize the times during their own youth when they became intoxicated. Many adults joke about alcohol and brag to their young people about it. For some family, the first drink is taken as a sign of adulthood.

Besides joking about alcohol consumption, adults are role models for their children. It is extraordinarily common for parents to drink as exemplified by the evening cocktail. If not the cocktail there is wine and drinking it is reinforced by news about the health benefits of this beverage, particularly the red varieties.

Another powerful reinforcer for drinking and role modelling for our children are the mass media advertisements portraying alcohol intake in romantic and sexy terms. Sports events are televised with the usual beer advertisements that portray masculinity represented by a man with a beer in his fist.

Posters, magazines and other venues show martinis, wines, and other drinks in the most mouth watering and sexy terms possible.

What I always find intriguing about all of these advertisements is they end with the admonishment to "drink responsibly." When I see or hear these ads, I tend to finish the admonishment in the following way: "Drink responsibly...But Drink!!!?

In my opinion, we need to change the way we think about alcohol and, therefore, the way we portray its use to our children. What I mean by this is that as responsible parents, it is important that we stop romanticizing alcohol consumption, joking about it, offering it to our children and, most important, to stop sending the message that it is just harmless fun.

What I want very much to emphasize is that I am not saying that anyone who has a drink is an alcoholic. People are going to drink, and I realize that. My point is that we need to teach our children that there are risks involved in drinking and that it is something to begin once full adulthood has been achieved.

Your comments are welcome and encouraged.

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Drinking responsibly. - JR - Jul 1st 2008

I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of alcoholic drinks I consumed up to the age of 22.  Having spent some decades afterwards making up for this deficiency, I am convinced that, had I followed the pattern of youth drinking that is now the norm in my part of the world - with children drinking heavily, in the form of binge drinking, from their early 'teens in many cases - there is a good chance that I would be seriously injured or even dead by this point.

Yes, people should be worried about youth drinking.  Here, sale of alcohol to persons under 18 is prohibited by law, but much younger children seem to have no difficulty in getting as much of the stuff as they want.  Apart from "appropriating" alcohol stocked in the parental home, a particular problem here appears to be the willingness of young adults at about, or just above the legal drinking age to buy it for the younger ones in supermarkets and off-licence outlets - thus getting round a national identity card scheme for youth alcohol purchase that has, to be fair, been taken much more seriously by retailers in recent times.  There is also, unfortunately, a problem with forged identity cards as far as those close under the age limit are concerned.

As to parental attitudes to youth drinking, I suspect that few would condone spirits drinking on the part of their offspring.  However, more and more would see no harm in allowing their children to take a glass of wine with dinner, and many appear willing to "look the other way" when it comes to the occasional binge (after school exams, for example).  In practice, of course, the "occasions" have a way of becoming more frequent than such parents realise. 

A happy and prosperous future for liver specialists and rehab counsellors may confidently be expected.

But what to do ?  The problem with taking a "warning" attitude is that young people may take the message that alcohol is an attractive "forbidden fruit", and that the perceived joys of rebellion may be added to the general air of "cool" attaching to drinking.  Perhaps the public health advertising we now have here, stressing the downsides of excessive alcohol consumption for people in general and for young people in particular, are having a good effect.  However, there is little evidence of this, and this approach may prove counter-productive, too.  For some years now, advertising of tobacco products has been banned from the electronic media here.  Perhaps this should also be considered for alcohol - although I have to say that at the very best, the tobacco advertising ban has produced dividends only very slowly.  More effective in relation to tobacco consumption has been the much more recent ban on smoking in all indoor places of employment - although it now appears that the initial fall in consumption following this ban is slowly being reversed.  In any event, the prohibition option for alcohol is not realistic; precedents are definitely against this in the case of alcohol.

More broadly, there has of course been something of a societal change in many countries as far as tobacco smoking is concerned.  It is less acceptable socially than it used to be, and this is limiting consumption overall.  That having been said, it has been a slow change generally, and it should be easier to persuade people of the drawbacks of smoking smelly, lethal cigarettes than of drinking a powerful, still-glamorous intoxicant like alcohol.  And, discouragingly, the rebellion-effect seems to have produced the result that younger people are now more likely to smoke than their elders.  Hardly a happy precedent for the case of alcohol.

At best, achieving a substantial reduction in harmful youth drinking promises to be a slow business, whatever approach is adopted.

Best regards,


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