Daniel Reardon’s whole life lay ahead of him. The University of Maryland freshman had no history of alcohol abuse. But at his fraternity initiation party, he drank large amounts of beer through a funnel. Then his so-called friends poured bourbon down his throat. Daniel went into a coma. Several days later, he died.
Sixteen-year-old Brandon’s truck collided head-on with another truck. His friends Robert and Todd both died. Brandon suffered serious injuries. All three boys had been drinking, according to the Colorado State Highway Patrol.
Underage drinking threatens your physical, social, and emotional well-being. Make sure you know the facts.
Throughout the United States, it is a crime to drink or provide alcohol to anyone under age 21. That age limit is not an arbitrary number. Rather, it helps protect young people from irreversible harm. Such harm can occur even if someone isn’t a “problem drinker.”
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) says raising the drinking age to 21 has saved more than 20,000 lives since the mid-1970s. Yet drinking and driving is still deadly. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 17,419 people died in alcohol-related crashes in 2002. Twenty-three percent of the drivers in the 15 to 20 age group had been drinking.
“You can’t tell me that a couple of drinks isn’t going to hurt somebody,” says 18-year-old Molly Linn of Atlanta, Indiana. Just before graduation, a drunk driver crashed into her friend Nathan, who doesn’t drink. “I sat by his bed that night in the hospital absolutely terrified,” she says.
Alcohol can also lead to violence. NIAA studies show that at least one-half of all violent crimes involve drinking by the attacker, the victim, or both. This past June, for example, Louisiana police arrested a 15-year-old boy after a fight broke out during a party with drinking. The boy allegedly beat one 16-year-old boy with a flashlight and shot another in the legs.
Drinking also increases the risk of being involved in sexual assault, either as a victim or an attacker. “Both people have to live with lifelong consequences of that,” observes Mark Goldman, Ph.D., associate director of NIAAA.
Even if force isn’t involved, alcohol increases the chances of high-risk sexual activity as it decreases the ability to make good decisions. The risks of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, go way up when alcohol is involved.
Messing with the Brain
Alcohol interferes with judgment, coordination, and other basic functions by upsetting the brain’s balance of chemicals called neurotransmitters. The higher the blood alcohol concentration (BAC), the greater the amount of impairment. BAC represents the percentage of alcohol to blood. One hour after having two drinks, for example, a 160-pound male adult’s BAC will be about 0.04.
Many people become less inhibited and more excitable after one or two drinks. That’s probably because alcohol suppresses levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is an inhibitory neurotransmitter. Alcohol interferes with other neurotransmitters too. Altered dopamine levels lead to pleasurable feelings, which reinforces alcohol use. Effects on other neurotransmitters cause drowsiness, confusion, and impaired memory.
Even a BAC as low as 0.02 can impair driving skills. For people under 21, any detectable alcohol is generally grounds for a DUI (driving under the influence) conviction. Adults are generally deemed intoxicated at a BAC of 0.08. At that level, people may seem excitable or uncoordinated. At a BAC of 0.20, people are very drunk. They act increasingly confused, incoherent, or out of control. At a BAC of 0.40, breathing problems and coma occur.
Long-term drinking changes the brain’s chemistry. As the brain adapts to alcohol use, tolerance develops. A person must drink more and more to get the same effects.
Dependence or addiction develops when people crave, or strongly need, alcohol. They experience loss of control: They can’t stop drinking once they start. If they don’t drink, they suffer withdrawal. Symptoms include nausea, shakiness, sweating, and anxiety.
Teens at Risk
“We have very new information that suggests that the brains of young people may make them more vulnerable to alcohol,” notes Dr. Goldman. Recent studies show that the brain keeps developing until about age 21. During adolescence, the brain seems to be “wired” for risk-taking. That’s a good thing when it comes to growing more independent, meeting new friends, and learning new skills. It’s dangerous when risk-taking extends to drinking or using other drugs.
Underage drinkers are more likely to become dependent on alcohol as adults. It’s unclear whether starting early produces the problem or whether the people most at risk for those problems are more likely to drink early.
No one can know for sure whether he or she will become dependent on alcohol. If a close family member has a drinking problem, the risks go up. Yet people with no family history of alcohol problems are still at risk. Genetic, cultural, environmental, and social factors all play a role. Personality and individual choices matter too.
Significantly, you don’t have to be addicted, or alcohol-dependent, to have a problem with alcohol. Dr. Goldman says, “Alcohol problems in no way resemble a light switch that is either ‘on’ or ‘off.'”
Rather, alcohol problems start at low levels. They build up trouble at home, school, and work. As problems escalate, relationships with family and friends suffer. “You don’t want to start down that path,” warns Dr. Goldman.
Unfortunately, many young people are drinking–and drinking heavily. By eighth grade, 21 percent of students in the 2002 Monitoring the Future Study had already been drunk. More than 22 percent of tenth graders had recently been binge drinking. By college, reports the Harvard School of Public Health, more than 40 percent of the students are binge drinkers. (Generally, binge drinking is defined as five or more drinks in a row for males, four or more for females.)
About 6 percent of college students are already alcohol-dependent, reported John Knight and his colleagues at Harvard. Meanwhile, another 31 percent meet diagnostic criteria for alcohol abuse. Sadly, few students get treatment. The rest continue to use alcohol in dangerous situations. Their grades drop. Their relationships suffer. Or, they get into trouble with the law.
Alcohol use interacts with other mental health conditions. Often, depression and anxiety develop as problems from drinking mount. People who already have depression or anxiety disorder may drink alcohol to make the pain go away. Usually alcohol just makes things worse.
Most people want to make their lives better. Yet even when people know alcohol has bad consequences, some drink anyway. Researchers are exploring this issue.
Meanwhile, teens who drink are gambling with their lives. The choice to drink is too risky, says Dr. Goldman. “Why take that chance?”
“There’s a lot of pressure to drink, but you don’t have to cave in,” says 18-year-old Suzanne Iskander of Lakewood, Ohio. “Getting involved with a program like SADD can help you meet other people who don’t drink to have fun and who share your beliefs.” SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) helps teens model healthy behavior for their peers. Just as importantly, students have fun.
Substance-free parties for after prom, New Year’s, or graduation show teens that they can have fun without alcohol and drugs. “Grim Reaper” days show the impact of drinking and driving on America’s teens as selected students “die” and stay silent for the rest of the day. SADD members take part in volunteer work, community education programs, and other projects. Together, they encourage fellow teens to avoid alcohol and other destructive choices.
“Each bad decision that you’ve made cuts off a road that you’d be able to take,” says Molly Linn, SADD’s 2003 Student of the Year. Instead, she says, make smart choices during your teen years. “It’s your best shot at making yourself who you want to be.”