Prevalence of Underage Drinking

  • August 16, 2005
  • Every day in the United States, 7,000 kids under age 16 have their first full drink of alcohol.1 
  • More youth in the United States drink alcohol than smoke tobacco or marijuana, making it the drug most used by American young people.2 
  • The average age at which young people, ages 12 to 17, begin to drink is 13 years old.3 
  • In a national study, 18.6% of eighth-graders reported having at least one drink in the past 30 days, and 14.5% had been drunk at least once in the past year.4 
  • Between 1993 and 2001, 18- to 20-year-old drinkers showed the largest increase (56%) in binge-drinking episodes (five or more drinks consumed on at least one occasion in the past 30 days) among American adults. This group of underage drinkers also had the second-highest rate of binge drinking, outstripped only by young adults ages 21-25.5 
  • Twelve- to fourteen-year-old binge drinkers consume 92% of the alcohol drunk by their age group.6 
  • Approximately 10.9 million 12-20-year-olds have had a drink in the past month. Approximately 7.2 million of these young people were binge drinkers, and 2.3 million were heavy drinkers.7,8 
  • Ninety-six percent of the alcohol drunk by 15- to 17-year-olds and by 18- to 20-year-olds is consumed when the drinker is having five or more drinks at a time.9 
  • Almost half (48%) of all alcohol use reported by college students is attributable to those who are underage.10 
  • Underage drinking is estimated to account for between 12% and 20% of the U.S. alcohol market. Even the lower estimate, 12%, represents 3.6 billion drinks each year.11 

More kids try alcohol than try cigarettes:12 

 Had a drink in the last 30 daysHad a cigarette in the last 30 days
8th-graders18.6%9.2%
10th-graders35.2%16.0%
12th-graders48.0%25.0%


Prevalence of drinking by grade level:13 

 Had a drink, last 30 daysHad a drink, last yearBeen drunk, last 30 daysBeen drunk, last yearBeen drunk, ever
8th-graders18.6%36.7%6.2%14.5%19.9%
10th-graders35.2%58.2%18.5%35.1%42.3%
12th-graders48.0%70.6%32.5%51.8%60.3%

• Many people assume that European countries, with lower drinking ages, are more successful than the U.S. at preventing heavy drinking among young people. However, surveys from those countries that are designed to be comparable with U.S. data suggest otherwise: 

Drinking among 15-16-year-old students, selected Western countries and United States14 


 FranceIrelandItalySwedenUnited KingdomUnited States
Minimum purchase age (any alcoholic beverage or venue)15161816181821
Had a drink, last 30 days58%73%64%51%74%35%
Had five or more drinks on at least one occasion (binge drinking), last 30 days28%57%34%37%54%22%
Been drunk at least once, last 30 days15%53%19%34%46%18%

Updated July 2005

1Calculated using the 2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. J. Gfroerer of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, e-mail to David H. Jernigan, PhD, 14 September 2004.
2National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility, eds. R.J. Bonnie and M.E. O'Connell (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2004), 35.
3Calculated using the 2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. J. Gfroerer of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, e-mail to David H. Jernigan, PhD, 14 September 2004.
4L.D. Johnston, P.M. O'Malley, J.G. Bachman, and J.E, Schulenberg,
 Overall teen use continues gradual decline; but use of inhalants rises (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan News and Information Services, Dec. 21, 2004) (cited 14 Feb 2005).
5T.S. Naimi et al., "Binge Drinking Among US Adults," The Journal of the American Medical Association 289, no. 1 (January 1, 2003): 70-75.
6Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, Drinking in America: Myths, Realities, and Prevention Policy, prepared in support of the Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Enforcing the Underage Drinking Laws Program, U.S. Department of Justice (Calverton, MD: Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, 2002).
7Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration,
 Results from the 2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings (Rockville, MD: Office of Applied Studies, 2004) (cited 13 Jan 2005).
8According to SAMHSA, "Binge Alcohol Use is defined as drinking five or more drinks on the same occasion (i.e., at the same time or within a couple of hours of each other) on at least 1 day in the past 30 days. Heavy Alcohol Use is defined as drinking five or more drinks on the same occasion on each of 5 or more days in the past 30 days; all Heavy Alcohol Users are also Binge Alcohol Users."
9Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, Drinking in America: Myths, Realities, and Prevention Policy.
10H. Wechsler, J.E. Lee, T.F. Nelson, M. Kuo, "Underage College Students' Drinking Behavior, Access to Alcohol, and the Influence of Deterrence Policies: Findings from the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study," Journal of American College Health 50, no. 5 (March 2002): 223-236.
11Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, Drinking in America: Myths, Realities, and Prevention Policy; S.E. Foster, R.D. Vaughan, W.H. Foster, J.A. Califano, "Alcohol Consumption and Expenditures for Underage Drinking and Adult Excessive Drinking," Journal of the American Medical Association 289, no. 8 (26 Feb 2003): 989-995.
12L.D. Johnston, P.M. O'Malley, J.G. Bachman, and J.E, Schulenberg,
 Overall teen use continues gradual decline; but use of inhalants rises (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan News and Information Services, Dec. 21, 2004) (cited 14 Feb 2005).
13L.D. Johnston, P.M. O'Malley, J.G. Bachman, and J.E, Schulenberg,
 Overall teen use continues gradual decline; but use of inhalants rises (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan News and Information Services, Dec. 21, 2004) (cited 14 Feb 2005).
14Except for minimum purchase age, Bjorn Hibell et al., The ESPAD Report 2003: Alcohol and Other Drug Use Among Students in 35 European Countries (Stockholm: The Swedish Council for Information on Alcohol and Other Drugs [CAN], 2004).
15World Health Organization, Global Status Report: Alcohol Policy (Geneva: World Health Organization, 2004), 32-3.