New Findings on Quantity and Frequency of Alcohol Use Among Underage Drinkers

April 24, 2008

In 2006, a majority (53.9 percent) of American adolescents and young adults aged 12 to 20 had used an alcoholic beverage at least once in their lifetime.1 Young people aged 12 to 20 consumed approximately 11.2 percent of the alcoholic drinks consumed in the United States in the past month by persons aged 12 or older.2 Research shows that underage drinkers tend to consume more alcohol per occasion than those over the legal minimum drinking age of 21.3 Studies also have linked early drinking to heavy alcohol consumption and alcohol-related problems in adulthood.4,5 For example, in 2006, 16.3 percent of adults aged 21 or older who had first used alcohol before the age of 15 met the criteria for alcohol dependence or abuse in the past year compared with 2.4 percent of adults who first used alcohol at age 21 or older.6 Research also shows that early initiation of alcohol use is associated with higher likelihood of involvement in violent behaviors, suicide attempts, unprotected sexual intercourse, and multiple sex partners.7,8

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) asks persons aged 12 or older to report the frequency and quantity of their alcohol use during the 30 days prior to the interview. Respondents who drank alcohol in the past 30 days also are asked for the number of days they consumed alcohol in the past month and the average number of drinks consumed per day on the days they drank.9

This report focuses on the frequency and quantity of past month alcohol use among underage drinkers (i.e., persons aged 12 to 20 who consume alcohol). Comparisons of the quantity and frequency of alcohol use in the past month also are made between underage drinkers and drinkers aged 21 or older. All findings presented in this report are based on combined 2005 and 2006 NSDUH data.