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Consequences of Underage Alcohol Use

Alcohol is the most widely used drug among youth. It causes serious and potentially life-threatening problems for this population. Research indicates that drinking is associated with risk-taking and sensation-seeking behavior among adolescents. Alcohol has disinhibiting effects that may increase the likelihood of unsafe activities. In 1997, 21 percent of the young drivers 15 to 20 years old who were killed in crashes were intoxicated. For young drivers, alcohol involvement is higher among males than among females.

In 1997, 25 percent of the young male drivers involved in fatal crashes had been drinking at the time of the crash, compared with 12 percent of the young female drivers involved in fatal crashes. According to national data, drowning is the leading cause of injury-related death among adolescents and young adults. Factors contributing to youth drowning include alcohol which can severely affect a swimmer’s coordination and judgment. Forty to 50 percent of young males who drown were drinking when they died, and an equal percentage of all diving accidents are alcohol related.

Approximately 240,000 to 360,000 of the nation’s 12 million current undergraduates will ultimately die from alcohol-related causes. People who begin drinking before the age of 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who wait until age 21. Each additional year of delayed drinking onset reduces the probability of alcohol dependence by 14 percent. Adolescents who drink heavily assume the same long-term health risks as adults who drink heavily. This means they are at increased risk of developing cirrhosis of the liver, pancreatitis, hemorrhagic stroke, and certain forms of cancer.

Adolescents who use alcohol are more likely to become sexually active at an earlier age, to have sex more often, and to engage in unprotected sex, which places them at greater risk of HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases. One study showed that students diagnosed with alcohol abuse were four times more likely to experience major depression than those without an alcohol problem. Alcohol use among adolescents has been associated with considering planning, attempting, and completing suicide. Research does not indicate whether drinking causes suicidal behavior, only that the two behaviors are correlated.

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can lead to serious and permanent brain damage in the unborn child. This can result in mental retardation and severe emotional problems as the child grows up. A lower dosage of alcohol will damage a young brain compared to a fully mature brain, and young brains are damaged more quickly. Alcohol exposure during adolescence is linked with a reduced ability to learn compared with those not exposed until adulthood. Alcohol is implicated in more than 40 percent of all college academic problems and 28 percent of all college dropouts. At both 2- and 4-year colleges, the heaviest drinkers make the lowest grades.

High school students who use alcohol or other substances are five times more likely than other students to drop out of school or to believe that earning good grades is not important. About half of college students who are victims of crime are drinking when they are victimized. In a high percentage of serious crimes, alcohol is found in the offender, the victim, or both, and alcohol-related problems are disproportionately found in both juvenile and adult offenders. Ninety-five percent of violent crime on college campuses is alcohol related, and 90 percent of college rapes involve alcohol use by the victim and assailant.

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