Underage Drinking – A National Problem
Underage drinking is a serious national problem that costs the United States $62.6 billion annually in deaths, injuries, property damage and related economic and productivity losses. Child and adolescent drinkers are a threat to themselves and their neighbors. Illegal alcohol consumption by minors led to 3,212 deaths and 2.4 million other harmful events in the lives of families and citizens in 2001.
Research indicates that drinking is associated with risk-taking and sensation-seeking behavior among adolescents. Alcohol consumption diminishes inhibitions and increases the likelihood of participation in unsafe activities. Young people who drink heavily or binge drink (consuming five or more drinks per occasion) consume the vast majority of the alcohol drunk by their age group. Percentages range from 92 percent for 12- to 14-year-olds to 96 percent for 18- to 20-year-olds. Underage drinkers account for about 16 percent of all the alcohol consumed in the United States.
National Academy of Sciences report on underage drinking
Responding to this growing problem, Congress directed the National Academy of Sciences in 2003 to undertake a comprehensive study of underage drinking. The NAS Institute of Medicine recently submitted its report, Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility, and its recommendations to Congress. The objective of the study was to develop workable and cost-effective strategies for reducing and preventing underage drinking.
The report points out that “More youth drink than smoke tobacco or use other illegal drugs.” Yet, federal investments in preventing underage drinking pale in comparison with resources targeted (mostly to youths) at preventing illicit drug use. In fiscal 2000, Congress provided $71.1 million to the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services, Justice, and Transportation to help prevent underage alcohol abuse. The federal investment in preventing illicit drug use is $1.8 billion—25 times higher than that dedicated to preventing underage drinking.
Bipartisan consensus in Congress: Aggressive national effort is needed to combat problem
A strong bipartisan consensus is forming in Congress that an aggressive national effort is needed to combat underage drinking to protect America’s youth. The release of the NAS report with its disturbing findings underscores the need for urgent action and has served as an impetus for Congress to take action. Sen. Mike DeWine (R-OH), who chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Subcommittee on Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, held a hearing Sept. 30, 2003 to examine the NAS study and its recommendations. In his opening statement, Chairman DeWine said, “We are here today to discuss a very serious issue affecting the health and well-being of our nation’s young people – an issue that has been ignored too long – an issue that kills thousands of America’s teenagers. We are here today to talk about underage drinking and the devastating impact it is having on this country’s young people.”
Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT) also participated in the hearing, echoing the sentiments of his colleague. Both Senators DeWine and Dodd expressed interest in working constructively with the alcohol industry to develop strategies to reduce underage drinking. Industry representatives pledged their cooperation and assistance.
Lawmakers take initial steps to address problem
Since the hearing, a bipartisan group of Senators and Representatives has sought to implement many of the recommendations of the NAS study and take other steps aimed at reducing underage drinking. This group succeeded in including $800,000 in the FY 2004 omnibus spending bill for the Ad Council to develop, in consultation with the industry, advocates, and other interested parties, an underage drinking public service campaign directed at parents.
In seeking to achieve better coordination of federal efforts to combat underage drinking, the group also directed the Secretary of Health and Human Services to establish an interagency committee on the prevention of underage drinking and issue an annual report summarizing all federal activities concerning this issue. Further, the group included language in the omnibus bill directing the Secretary, in coordination with agencies such as SAMHSA and NIAAA, to prepare a plan for combating underage drinking, including the projected costs and next steps to be taken, and report progress on such a plan 90 days after enactment of the legislation.
Creation of “Congressional Caucus to Combat Underage Drinking”
The International Institute for Alcohol Awareness has received strong support from key members of Congress and their aides for its recommendation to establish a bipartisan, bicameral Congressional Caucus to Combat Underage Drinking. This panel would focus on issues related to underage drinking and explore the development of a comprehensive strategy to reduce the dangers and harms associated with alcohol consumption by minors. It would use its position and influence to develop and guide legislation, raise public awareness, and promote best practices that will contribute to reduced underage drinking. Since these initial meetings, the bipartisan group of members of Congress identified earlier is drafting a comprehensive measure aimed at reducing and preventing underage drinking.