Commentary: Darien campaign against teen binge drinking commendable

The Thriving Youth Task Force and The Community Fund of Darien must be commended for providing reliable information about the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption.  Excessive alcohol consumption is the third leading cause of preventable death in this country, and a known risk factor for chronic disease. Excessive alcohol consumption is defined as binge drinking, heavy drinking or any drinking by pregnant women or people younger than 21 (CDC).  Research consistently demonstrates that both the long and short term negative health effects of alcohol consumption are partially dependent on the age at which drinking begins (NIAAA), and that “alcohol causes more damage to the developing brain of teenagers than was previously thought, injuring them significantly more than it does adult brains”(Butler, New York Times).

“Alcohol consumption is a social behavior, something people learn from, and practice with other members of their culture (family, peers).  Consequently, the drinking behavior of adolescents and young adults in any country or culture is related to the drinking behavior of the whole population”(NIAAA).  Both societal norms on drinking and teen culture, as well as parental drinking behavior influence adolescent alcohol consumption.  Teens are less likely to drink when their parents model responsible drinking and inform them of the detrimental effects of alcohol consumption on the teen brain. However, when a culture of excessive alcohol intake is tolerated, adolescents follow suit.

The prevailing myth is that Europe has it “right” and that lowering the drinking age would result in fewer teens binge drinking.  Alongside with this myth is a commonly held belief that parents can and should teach their teens how to drink alcohol, as if this will lead to safer drinking behavior.  Yet European teens do not actually drink more responsibly than those in the U.S.  In the U.S., the average age of first-time alcohol use is 13, compared to European countries where more than half of 11-year-olds have already tasted alcohol (NIAAA).  41% of 15-16 year olds in the U.S. report having never used alcohol, while only 12% report having used alcohol frequently (at least 40 times) (YRBSS).  

In comparison, in multiple European nations, more than 45% of 15 – 16 year olds report frequent alcohol consumption, and more than 20% report drinking to intoxication.  35% of 15-year-olds in Europe report heavy episodic drinking (more than five drinks at least once in the last 30 days) versus 15.1% of U.S. 10th graders and 11.4% of Connecticut 10th graders.  47% of 15-year-olds in Europe report current alcohol use (at least one drink in the last 30 days) versus 29% of 10th graders in the U.S. “The absolute majority of the 17-18 year olds in numerous European countries have been drunk at least once,” whereas one in four U.S. 12th graders report the same (ESPAD, YRBSS).  

The World Health Organization reports that the EU has the highest rate of alcohol consumption in the world, more than double that of the world average, with the majority of European countries consuming more alcohol than the U.S.  Even in countries where heavy drinking and public drunkenness are avoided, and binge drinking rates are lower across all ages, they are still higher than in the U.S.  Europe truly does not appear to have it “right,” which is why the EU, like the U.S., is actively combatting this public health issue.  We all want what is best for our kids.  When it comes to alcohol, what is best is to delay onset of use for as long as possible.    

Statistical sources: Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey (YRBSS), the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (EPSAD), the World Health Organization (WHO), the Center for Disease Control (CDC), and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

Jamie Murray, MD

PEACH Advisors

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