Underage drinkers account for about 17 percent of consumer expenditures for alcohol

Underage drinking contributes an estimated $23 billion yearly to the alcohol industry, more than 17 percent of the total consumer expenditures for alcohol, according to an article in the May issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

In 1998, alcohol abuse and alcoholism cost the U.S. $184 billion, more than cancer ($107 billion) or obesity ($100 billion), according to background information in the article. Research suggests that delaying the onset of regular drinking is an effective way to prevent pathological drinking. For example, one study found that those who began drinking before 15 years of age were four times more likely to become alcohol dependent, compared with those who did not drink before they turned 21. Young and old pathological drinkers consume a disproportionate share of alcohol.

Susan E. Foster, M.S.W., and colleagues from The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, New York, examined information from several national sets of data to estimate the commercial value to the alcohol industry of alcohol consumed by underage as well as abusive and dependent alcohol drinkers. The data were from several surveys that included a total of 260,580 individuals age 12 years and older. Alcohol abuse and dependence was defined according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV).

In 2001, an estimated $128.6 billion was spent on alcohol in the U.S. Of this amount, $22.5 billion (17.5 percent) was the value of alcohol consumed by underage drinkers and $36.3 billion (28.3 percent) was attributable to abusive or dependent drinking by both underage and adult drinkers. Of individuals aged 12 to 20 years, 47.1 percent were current drinkers and 25.9 percent of them met criteria for alcohol abuse and dependence, compared to only 9.6 percent of drinkers 21 years and older who were classified as being abusive of or dependent on alcohol. Pathological drinkers consumed three times as much alcohol per month as drinkers without abuse or dependence problems. The combined monetary value of underage drinking and adult pathological drinking was at least $48.3 billion, more than one-third of all consumer expenditures for alcohol.

"Almost all (96.8 percent) of the adult drinkers with alcohol abuse and dependence began drinking prior to the age of 21 years," the authors write. "With at least 37.5 percent of sales linked to underage drinking and adult abusive and dependent drinking, the alcohol industry has a compelling financial motive to attempt to maintain or increase rates of underage drinking. Alcohol advertisements in magazines, for example, expose youth aged 12 to 20 years to 45 percent more beer advertisements and 27 percent more advertisements for distilled spirits than adults of legal drinking age."

"The financial interests of the alcohol industry appear to be antithetic to the public health interests of the nation in preventing and limiting pathological drinking," they conclude.

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(Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2006; 160: 473 – 478. Available pre-embargo to media at www.jamamedia.org.)


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