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Sobering statistics: Teen drinking continues to fall, study shows

Teen drinking continues to fall in the U.S.

Beer and other alcoholic drinks are for sale in a Miami Beach liquor store. A new study shows continuing declines in teen drinking, and researchers say one likely reason is that alcohol has become more difficult for them to get.

(Wilfredo Lee / AP)

More American teenagers are just saying no to booze.

A new national survey finds that 40% of teens consumed alcohol in 2015, including 22% who did so in the 30 days before they were questioned.

Those figures, published Wednesday in the annual Monitoring the Future report, are the lowest they’ve been since the survey began in 1975.

“We are very encouraged by the continued decline in underage drinking illustrated in these data,” George F. Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, said in a statement. “However, the percent of underage individuals drinking still remains unacceptably high.”

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Researchers from the University of Michigan interviewed a panel of nearly 45,000 students in eighth, 10th and 12th grades about their drinking and smoking habits as well as their use of illegal and prescription drugs.

Some of the most encouraging findings were related to alcohol. In 2015, 47% of 12th-graders, 29% of 10th-graders and 11% of eighth-graders said they had gotten drunk at least once in their lives. A generation ago, in 1991, the equivalent figures were 65%, 50% and 27%, respectively.

In addition, although the nation’s legal drinking age is 21, 58% of 12th-graders, 42% of 10th-graders and 21% of eighth-graders said that some amount of alcohol had passed their lips during 2015. Back in 1991, 78% of high school seniors, 72% of high school sophomores and 54% of eighth-graders made the same claim.

The decline in alcohol use extended to binge drinking, which the report defined as “having five or more drinks in a row on one or more occasions in the prior two weeks.” Across all three grades surveyed, 11% of students had at least one episode of binge drinking in 2015. That’s half as many as in 1997, according to study leader Lloyd Johnston, who has been tracking drug use among American teens since the 1960s from his perch at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research.

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Broken down by grade level, the survey found that the prevalence of binge drinking this year was 5% among eighth-graders, 11% among 10th-graders and 17% among 12th-graders.

“Extreme binge drinking” is on the decline as well. In 2015, 6.1% of high school seniors said they had downed 10 or more drinks in a row, including 3.5% who finished off 15 or more. In 2005 — the first year that researchers asked about extreme binge drinking — 10.6% of high school seniors had finished off at least 10 drinks in a row, including 5.7% who had at least 15.

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Johnston said disapproval from one’s peers, which has been on the rise since 2000, might account for some of this decline. Another likely factor is that teens — especially eighth-graders — say it has become more difficult for them to get their hands on alcohol in the first place.

Even so, Johnston added, a majority of students in all three grades said they would be able to get some alcohol if they really wanted to.

The Monitoring the Future study is sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health.  

Follow me on Twitter @LATkarenkaplan and “like” Los Angeles Times Science & Health on Facebook.


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