Smart-Take: Underage Alcohol Use

The problems of college-aged drinking are ubiquitous. Four in five college students (many still underage) consume alcohol, with about half of those students binge drinking. The result? Each year, nearly 2,000 students die of accidental injury, more than 97,000 are sexually assaulted, and more than 150,000 develop a health-related problem due to drinking.

However, the statistics around underage drinking for children and teens (as young as 12 and 13) are not so often in the news. At the high school and junior high levels, many parents are not aware of the prevalence of alcohol use and abuse.

According to the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS), in the 30 days prior to the 2013 survey, 35 percent of high school students drank some alcohol, and 1 in 5 consumed five or more drinks on a single occasion.

Aside from the legal consequences, underage drinking comes with a wide range of risks, such as:

  • Stunted cognitive development that can have long-term repercussions
  • Impaired judgment leading to dangerous behaviors (driving, sexual activity, violence)
  • Increased risk of sexual and physical assault
  • Unintentional injuries (falls, burns)
  • Death (car accidents, suicide, homicide, alcohol poisoning, drowning)


People who started drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to have an alcohol dependency issue later in life.


The teen years are a time of rapid change. Peer groups become more important than the family group, and teens express increased independence and have to learn to start coping with more and more stress. Some of the warning signs of underage drinking may not be as obvious as smelling alcohol on the breath, slurred speech, or uncoordinated movements. Others include:

  • Social indicators, like suddenly changing groups of friends or indicating less interest in activities they used to enjoy
  • Furtive behavior, or finding alcohol hidden in a bedroom
  • Newly appearing academic or behavioral problems in school
  • Memory and/or concentration problems

Reducing the risk of use is a multi-faceted community problem, but parents can play a role:

  • Talk early and often about the dangers of alcohol
  • Provide an example of safe, responsible, and moderate use
  • Don’t enable access in the home (and provide supervision at group gatherings)
  • Get to know your teen’s friends (and their parents), and make sure that everyone is on the same page with regard to zero tolerance

Get more resources from the Surgeon General’s Call to Action addressing underage drinking.