by Kimberly Leonard
October 05, 2018
The confirmation battle over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh has sparked a public conversation about drinking and its effects, particularly among and for teens.
But the portrait drawn during the confirmation process of the drinking that Kavanaugh and his friends did in high school and college in the 1980s stands in stark contrast to teen drinking habits today. Decades-worth of studies have shown that when it comes to alcohol, teens today are much less likely to imbibe than their parents were.
They are not only less likely to try or even regularly use alcohol, but less likely to binge drink, too. The prevalence of drinking in high school declined from 50.8 percent in 1991 to 32.8 percent by 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I’m encouraged by the continuous drop in underage drinking … I think it’s a success and I think sometimes we don’t talk enough about the successes,” said Dr. George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Alcohol features prominently in the allegations by three women who accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault. Kavanaugh admitted during a testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee that when he was younger, he was a drinker.
“Sometimes I had too many beers,” he acknowledged, though he stressed that he never blacked out or got so drunk that he didn’t remember what he did. He denied ever being a perpetrator of sexual assault.
“I liked beer,” he said. “I still like beer.”
Kavanaugh’s drinking history also sharply contrasts to that of President Trump, a lifelong teetotaler due to the influence of his brother, who suffered from alcoholism and died at age 43. Trump’s own relationship with alcohol drew renewed interest this past week.
Despite his personal decision not to drink, Trump said this week that he didn’t see anything wrong with the allegations of irresponsible drinking heaped on his nominee.
“I remember my college days,” Trump said. “Everybody was drinking. It was like normal. I was abnormal.”
But not drinking has become more normal among teens. In 2017, 27.1 percent of people between the ages of 12 and 17 said they had ever used alcohol in their lifetimes, and 9.9 percent reported binge drinking during the past month.
“These are some of the lowest rates that we’ve ever seen,” said Sheryl Ryan, who chairs the committee on substance abuse and prevention at the American Academy of Pediatrics. “However, we still do have significant numbers of young people who report binge drinking and heavy binge drinking.”
The reduction in drinking rates has confounded experts, even as they consider it a significant public health victory. The decline in teen drinking follows trends in other risky behaviors: Teens today are less likely to smoke, have sex, or do drugs.
Public health officials believe that preventing teen alcohol use is important because the teenage brain is still developing, and really won’t be done until the person is in his or her mid-20s.
As for what is driving the overall decline, theories abound.
More restrictions have been put in place to reduce underage drinking. Retailers are more likely to check IDs, and states set minimum ages on who is allowed to serve alcohol in restaurants and bars. Laws that make parents liable when teens drink at their homes, even if no one gets harmed, have become commonplace.
Though the 21-year-old drinking age limit is controversial given that other developed countries have lower minimum drinking ages, data show that drunken driving deaths among teens dropped by 79 percent since 1982. The minimum drinking age rose in beginning in 1984 and extended to all states by 1988.
The government has also pushed public health messages warning of the dangers of drinking underage, and encouraging parents to talk to their children about the dangers of underage drinking. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, or NIAAA, now encourages doctors to ask young people whether and how much they drink, which Koob said has at least helped teens think about the consequences of drinking.
“Prevention is actually working,” Koob said. “We do know what works.”
Even the industry has been a part of the effort. The spirits industry, for instance, spent $250 million since 1991 on education and public awareness campaigns to combat underage drinking and drunken driving.
“It’s much more of our social discourse and there is much more public awareness,” Ryan said.
Technology also may have curbed risky behavior. The drop in alcohol consumption is correlated with the rise in the use of phones and social media, which entertain teens and take up more of their time – and also may allow them to learn the dangers of drinking secondhand, rather than the hard way.
It’s something that the NIAAA, a part of the National Institutes of Health, is funding research to study.
“Technology can go both ways,” Koob said. “It can be used successfully for things like intervention and treatment, but it can go the other direction as well.”
For instance, scientists have noticed worrisome mental health trends. Data show today’s teens are more likely to harm or kill themselves and to face cyberbullying.
And alcohol prevention efforts are failing some groups, including low-income people. In college, women are showing rates of drinking that are similar to men.
According to the latest CDC study on the issue, which examines data from 2010, excessive drinking still causes 4,300 deaths a year among people under 21. Roughly 189,000 went to the emergency department because of alcohol poisoning or an injury linked to alcohol.
And older teens drink more than younger ones – roughly double. Government data from 2017 show that from ages 18 to 20, nearly 60 percent of people reported having alcohol in the past year. Nearly 25 percent reported binge drinking in the past month.
Researchers are on their way to learning even more about the impact of alcohol use on teens. The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study, a massive NIH-funded study that began in 2015 is underway, following 10,000 children for a decade, beginning at ages 9 and 10. Known as the “ABCD Study,” it is intended to look at brain development, including the impact of substance use.