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high school and in young adulthood (15 percent of males and 18 percent of females); and the group who reported never drinking alcohol (24 percent of males and 45 percent of females). These data suggest that not all adolescents drink and that many who do drink in high school or college choose to drink less as they enter young adulthood, suggesting that both developmental and contextual factors contribute to alcohol consumption during adolescence.

Drinking Initiation

According to the most recent year that public NHSDA data on this topic are available, the average age of first use of alcohol among individuals of all ages reporting any alcohol use, based on the respondents’ recall of this information, has decreased from 17.6 years in 1965 to 15.9 years in 1999 (SAMHSA 2003).2 For 12- to 20-year-olds only, the average age of first use in 2000 is even younger—14 (Foster et al., 2003). According to Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance, United States, 2001 (Grunbaum et al., 2002), 33.7 percent of Latino youth were more likely to report drinking before age 13 than their white (28.4 percent) and African American (28.2 percent) counterparts; see Figure 2-3.

As discussed in Chapter 3, early onset is associated with a number of problematic consequences. For instance, individuals who begin drinking before the age of 15 are more likely to have substance abuse problems in their lifetimes, to engage in risky sexual behavior, and to suffer other negative consequences in comparison with those who begin drinking at a later age. However, we recognize that age of “first drink” may not be a good measure of age of onset of drinking.

How Youth Drink

Looking at data for youths, rather than just those who are drinkers, reveals similar patterns to those discussed above (see Figure 2-4): any recent use and heavy use progressively increases as youths approach the legal drinking age. Figure 2-4 also shows steady increases in frequent heavy drinking from ages 12 to 20.

Over 40 percent of 18-year-olds and a majority (56 percent) of 20-year-olds report having recently drunk alcohol. Although overall alcohol use is low for the youngest age group, almost one-half of the 12-year-olds who reported alcohol use reported having drunk heavily in the past 30 days. The


“Age of first use” refers to the age respondents report having consumed at least one drink (e.g., a bottle of beer, glass of wine, shot glass of liquor, or a mixed drink), not having had “a sip or two from a drink.”

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