Alcohol Awareness Month: Help for Today, Hope for Tomorrow

In 1987, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) established Alcohol Awareness Month. Their goal was to reduce stigma around alcohol and alcoholism by reaching out to the nation each April with facts about alcohol, alcohol abuse, and recovery. In the beginning, a primary purpose of Alcohol Awareness Month was countering the idea that problem drinking was a character flaw or moral failing. The NCADD sought to replace that idea with the more accurate notion that an alcohol use disorder (AUD, a.k.a. alcoholism) is a chronic, progressive, relapsing disease that can be fatal if untreated. When treated, however, people with an AUD can recover and live happy, full, and productive lives.

This year, the theme for Alcohol Awareness Month is “Help for Today, Hope for Tomorrow.” The focus is young people and the impact alcohol and problems related to alcohol have on young people and their families. This is an important mission, because at the moment, the attention of the nation is squarely focused on other topics which, while related, might cause us to lose focus on the reality of alcohol and alcohol abuse. The other topics – the opioid crisis, e-cigarettes (Juuling), the legalization of marijuana – all deserve our attention, but not at the expense of our awareness and efforts to educate the public about alcohol use and offer help where help is needed.

On that note, here’s a fact about alcohol many people don’t know:

  • Between 2007 and 2017, alcohol related deaths increased 35%

Here’s another:

  • Between 2007 and 2017, there were around 88,000 alcohol related deaths each year – that’s 46% more than opioid-related deaths in 2017.

And here’s one more:

  • Between 2008 and 2017, over 10,000 people per year died in alcohol-related automobile accidents.

Those facts are why we need to keep talking about alcohol.

Alcohol and Youth: Rates of Use

The figures we just gave were general statistics about the entire population of the U.S. But the NCADD is focusing on youth this year for a very good reason: the numbers on youth and alcohol are cause for concern. During National Drug and Alcohol Facts Awareness Week, we published this article with all the latest data on rates of alcohol use among teenagers.

Here’s a summary of that data:

  • 1% of adolescents said they’d had at least one drink in their lives. That’s almost 7 million teenagers.
  • 9% of adolescents said they’d had at least one drink in the past year. That’s over 5 million teenagers.
  • 2% of adolescents said they’d had at least one drink in the past month. That’s about 2.5 million teenagers
  • Around 4.9% of adolescents reported binge drinking (consuming 5 or more drinks on the same occasion) in the past month. That’s 1.25 million teenagers.
  • Around 0.8% of adolescents reported heavy alcohol use (consuming 5 or more drinks on the same occasion on each of 5 or more days) in the past month. That’s close to 250,000 teenagers.
  • Estimates indicate 1.8% of adolescents have an AUD. That’s 443,000 teens. Of those, only 3% received appropriate treatment

Those numbers are a clear reminder that while opioids are a danger to our youth, alcohol is, too – it’s a problem that’s been around a long time, and it’s not going away.

Alcohol and Youth: The Impact

The rates of alcohol use among teenagers may not be surprising to some people. After all, one of the reasons alcohol is a problem in the U.S. is because teen drinking has become an alternate rite of passage in our culture. Drinking starts in high school, escalates during the college years, then becomes a behavioral norm during adulthood. However, no matter how accepted it may be in our culture, drinking during the teen years is not harmless.

Information from the NCADD shows that:

  • Alcohol causes over 4,300 deaths among teens each year
  • Alcohol use by people under 21 results in 189,000 emergency room visits per year
  • Over 1.6 million young people report driving after drinking each year
  • 33% of teens say they accept rides from drivers who have been drinking, even though they know it’s dangerous
  • Even though the legal drinking age is 21, adolescents (age 12-20) drink almost 13% of all alcohol in the U.S.
    • 90% of this happens in the form of binge drinking
  • People who start drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder than those who begin drinking at age 21.
  • Teens who drink are more likely to:
    • Be victims of violent crime
    • Be involved in alcohol-related car accidents
    • Have problems in school

That’s all the bad news. We say that because there is, in fact, good news. To find it, you can look at all the statistics and realize that yes, although a lot of adolescents are drinking – most aren’t. And although most of the teens who need help for problem drinking are not getting the help they need, many are. All those are good things.

Alcohol and Youth: How To Help

The right combination of knowledge, education, and practical advice can keep teenage experimentation with alcohol from escalating to problem use. The most important protective factor? Parents. According to the NCADD, two family features help combat the problem of youth drinking: support and communication. Families with a supportive environment show lower rates of alcohol use for adolescents, and kids whose parents talk to them about the dangers of alcohol use are 50% less likely to drink under age than kids whose parents don’t initiate those conversations.

Finally, speaking to the issue of underage/youth drinking in general – a problem that, despite decades of effort, doesn’t seem to be going away – experts at the NCADD have found four avenues of prevention they consider effective:

  1. Limiting access to alcohol for underage populations
  2. Enforcing existing laws and regulations for purchasing alcohol
  3. Reducing stigma about problem alcohol use through education
  4. Expanding access to treatment for teenagers and their families.

We advise all parents reading this post to share it with their teenagers. Yes, the opioid crisis is real. Yes, e-cigarettes are causing teens to use nicotine in greater numbers than ever – but while those topics get the headlines, we all need to remember: teenage drinking can lead to long term physical, psychological, and emotional problems. And in some cases, teen drinking can be fatal.