Friday, March 9, 2012

3/9/12: Should We Teach Youth to Drink Responsibly at Home?

Ulster Prevention Council blog 3/9/12: Should We Teach Youth to Drink Responsibly at Home?

Often when I speak to community groups about underage drinking, a question is raised regarding youth drinking in European countries. A common perception is that youth in European countries are introduced to alcohol in cultural context that reduces heavy and harmful drinking.  The idea is often expressed that because the drinking age in the U.S. is 21, much higher than in European countries, youth miss out on the opportunity to learn to drink within family settings where moderate drinking is the norm. 

I decided that I needed more information in order to address these questions knowledgeably and accurately, and I was curious. Is there evidence that European youth drink less and experience fewer problems than their American counterparts?

Fortunately, we have significant data available in the form of the large European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD). ESPAD surveys students every four years, and in the last survey available (2007) 35 European countries collaborated, gathering data from more than 100,000 students. The questionnaire was closely modeled after the U.S. Monitoring the Future (MTF)survey and questions from the two surveys map closely onto one another.
Based on analysis of the 2007 ESPAD data by Bettina Friese and Joel W. Grube from the Prevention Research Center Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, the comparison of drinking rates and alcohol-related problems among youth with 2007 MTF data does not provide support for the belief that Western European youth drink more responsibly than youth in the U.S.
In comparison with youth in the U.S.:
  • A greater percentage of youth from nearly all European countries report drinking in the past 30 days;
  • A majority of the European countries have higher intoxication rates among youth;
  • For a majority of European countries, a greater percentage of youth report having been intoxicated before the age of 13
The rate of current drinking among youth in the U.S. is significantly lower than that for any of the Western European countries in this study with the exception of Iceland, where the legal drinking age is 20, the highest in Western Europe.
The study concludes that there is no evidence that the more liberal policies and drinking socialization practices in Europe are associated with lower levels of intoxication.
 Studies have consistently shown that youth who start drinking and heavy drinking at a younger age are at significantly greater risk for damage to the developing brain and a range of alcohol problems, including car crashes, drinking and driving, suicidal thoughts and attempts, unintentional injury, as well as drug and alcohol dependence later in life (e.g., Dawson, Goldstein, Chou, Ruan, & Grant, 2008; Hingson & Zha, 2009; Hingson, Edwards, Heeren, & Rosenbloom, 2009; Hingson, Heeren, & Edwards, 2008).

The ESPAD data provides much more rich information about alcohol and drug trends among European youth. I’m glad that I was able to find creditable information to share with parents, youth, professionals and community members to address the question of cultural contexts for youth drinking and further basis for supporting the legal drinking age of 21, at home as well as in the community.

For a copy of this and other ESPAD reports, email me or visit


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