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Frequently Asked Questions

Preventing Underage Alcohol Use

How common is underage drinking?

Alcohol is the drug of choice among American adolescents. More 8th, 10th, and 12th graders drink alcohol than use tobacco or other drugs. In 2012, more than half (54.2 percent) of 12th graders, about one third (34.6 percent) of 10th graders, and one eighth (12.8 percent) of 8th graders reported having been drunk at least once in their life.1

How many young people in the United States drink alcohol?

In 2012, about 9.3 million persons ages 12–20 (24.3 percent of this age group) reported drinking alcohol in the past month. Approximately 5.9 million (15.3 percent) were binge drinkers, and 1.7 million (4.3 percent) were heavy drinkers.2

When do young people first begin drinking?

In 2012, 3.74 million persons younger than 21 used alcohol for the first time, of which 2.7 million were younger than 18. The mean age at first use among recent initiates age 12 or older who initiated use prior to the age of 21 was 16.0 years.3

In 2012, rates of current alcohol use were 2.2 percent among persons age 12 or 13, 11.1 percent of persons age 14 or 15, 24.8 percent of 16- or 17-year-olds, and 45.8 percent of 18- to 20-year-olds.4

Does early use of alcohol increase the risk of alcohol dependence?

Yes. In 2012, adults who had first used alcohol at age 14 or younger were more than seven times as likely to be classified with alcohol dependence or abuse than were those who had their first drink at age 21 or older (15.2 percent vs. 2.1 percent).5

When should parents, caregivers, and other adults begin to talk with young people about underage drinking?

It is never too early to talk to your child about alcohol. Most 6-year-olds know that alcohol is only for adults. Between the ages of 9 and 13, children start to view alcohol more positively. Among 12- and 13-year-olds, 2.2 percent already are current alcohol users.6

Why is underage drinking everyone’s problem?

Underage drinking is a public health problem that affects the safety and well-being of everyone in a community—not just underage drinkers and their families. In 2011, 1,229 people other than the driver died in car crashes involving a 15- to 20-year-old driver with a blood alcohol content of 0.01 or above.7

What does underage drinking cost the United States?

Underage drinking cost U.S. citizens $62 billion in 2010. These costs include medical care, work loss, and pain and suffering associated with the multiple problems resulting from alcohol consumption by youth.8 Visit the Underage Drinking Enforcement Training Center SAMHSA Exit Disclaimer Page for estimates of costs by state.

Can underage drinking be prevented?

Yes, underage drinking can be prevented. Rates of current, binge, and heavy alcohol use among underage persons declined between 2002 and 2012. The rate of current alcohol use among 12- to 20-year-olds decreased from 28.8 percent in 2002 to 24.3 percent in 2012. The binge drinking rate declined from 19.3 to 15.3 percent, and the rate of heavy drinking declined from 6.2 to 4.3 percent.9 This progress indicates that families, schools, and others in the community must continue their prevention efforts.

How can parents, teachers, and other adults help prevent underage drinking?

Parents, teachers, and other adults play a vital role in influencing the attitudes and behaviors of young people toward alcohol use. Adults can:

  • Talk with young people about the potential health, social, and legal consequences of underage drinking;
  • Convey clear and consistent messages that underage drinking is unacceptable;
  • Help young people build the practical skills to avoid peer pressure to use alcohol;
  • Support and reinforce the ability of young people to make healthy decisions; and
  • Organize events, such as Town Hall Meetings, to engage young people and others in the community in using evidenced-based approaches to prevent underage drinking.

Parents and caregivers can find more information about discussing alcohol use consequences with children ages 9- to 15 at, the homepage for “Talk. They Hear You.”

Where can I find information on effective prevention approaches?

SAMHSA's National Registry of Evidence-based Programs is a searchable online registry of more than 200 interventions supporting mental health promotion, substance abuse prevention, and mental health and substance abuse treatment. Search under “underage drinking” for programs to prevent and reduce underage drinking.

Another source of information is the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s Alcohol Policy Information System (APIS). APIS provides detailed information on a wide variety of alcohol-related policies at both state and federal levels.


1 Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., & Schulenberg, J. E. (2013). Monitoring the Future national results on drug use: 2012 overview: Key findings on adolescent drug useSAMHSA Exit Disclaimer Page. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan.

2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2013). Results from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of national findings, NSDUH Series H-46, HHS Publication No. (SMA) 13-4795. Rockville, MD: Author.

7 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (2011). Fatality Analysis Reporting System.

8 Underage Drinking Enforcement Training Center. Underage drinking costs: Problems and costs associated with underage drinking in the United StatesSAMHSA Exit Disclaimer Page.