The Truth About Underage Drinking

Five friends giving Social Support in Recovery

Alcohol is the most used and abused drug among young people in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) [1]. And while many youths think drinking underage is no big deal, research shows underage drinking comes with sobering consequences. Here is an honest look at the truth about underage drinking, plus an overview of how drinking underage affects youth development.

The Facts About Underage Drinking

Despite being illegal, the CDC reports that persons aged 12 to 20 years drink 11 percent of all alcohol consumed in the U.S [2]. And on average, underage drinkers consume more drinks per drinking episode than adult drinkers [3]. In 2017, the Youth Risk Behavior Survey did a study on high school students’ drinking activity over the past 30 days [4]. They found that:

  • 14 percent binge drank
  • 30 percent drank some amount of alcohol
  • 6 percent drove after drinking
  • 17 percent rode with a driver who had been drinking

Here are some sobering facts highlighting the consequences of underage drinking:

  • 3,200 youths die each year as a direct result of excessive drinking [5].
  • In 2010, excessive underage drinking cost the U.S. $24 billion in economic expenses [6].
  • In 2013, a report revealed that approximately 119,000 emergency room visits were made by persons aged 12 to 21 for injuries and other problems linked to alcohol [7].

The Consequences

The CDC shares that youth who drink alcohol are more likely to experience the following problems than those who do not engage in underage drinking [8].

  • Unplanned, unwanted, and unprotected sexual activity
  • School problems (poor or failing grades and higher absences)
  • Memory problems
  • Physical and sexual assault
  • Disruptions in brain development, sometimes causing life-long effects
  • Death from alcohol poisoning
  • Abuse of other drugs
  • High risk for homicide and suicide
  • Disrupted growth and sexual development
  • Legal problems (arrest for hurting someone or driving while drunk)
  • Higher risk for developing Alcohol Use Disorder later in life

The Truth About Underage Drinking

Group of Teens discussing Underage DrinkingWhile alcohol use is often joked about and even promoted in everything from TV shows and commercials to music, social media, and friends’ conversations, drinking (especially underage drinking) can lead to serious, life-altering consequences. Here are five common myths and facts about alcohol use, supplied by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) [9].

Myth #1: Drinking alcohol will make people like you and is a great way to loosen up at parties.
Fact: Stumbling around, puking, or passing out does not make you more likable and is a dumb way to loosen up. Further, drinking alcohol increases the likelihood of sexual assaults and fights–the opposite of a “good time.”

Myth #2: Alcohol isn’t as harmful as other drugs.
Fact: The human brain doesn’t stop growing until you reach about 25 years of age, meaning underage drinking can hinder brain development [10]. Alcohol also increases your risk for accidents and injury and makes you more susceptible to developing numerous diseases like cancer. [11].

Myth #3: There is no reason to wait until you turn 21 to drink.
Fact: People who begin drinking before they turn 15 are much more likely to develop a drinking problem at some point in life than those who begin drinking at 21 or older [12]. Further, drinking when you’re young can cause learning difficulties [13].

Myth #4: You won’t get into trouble if you drink alcohol underage.
Fact: Every state in the U.S. has a 21-year-old minimum age drinking law. If you’re caught drinking underage, you could be forced to pay a fine, take alcohol awareness classes, do community service, or even serve time in jail.

Myth #5: All the other kids drink alcohol. If I want to fit in, I have to drink, too.
Fact: While far too many youths engage in underage drinking (often with devastating consequences), research shows nearly 80 percent of 12- to 20-year-olds haven’t had an alcoholic drink in the past month [14].

If you think you, a friend, or your child has an alcohol problem, don’t wait to get help. Underage alcohol consumption can lead to devastating, life-altering consequences. Seek help today by talking to a parent, teacher, doctor, therapist, or anyone you trust. Or reach out to Alcoholics Anonymous for professional support.


[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, January 3). Underage Drinking. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
[2] ibid.
[3] Bonnie RJ and O’Connell ME, editors. National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility external icon. Committee on Developing a Strategy to Reduce and Prevent Underage Drinking. Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2004
[4] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018, May 21). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance – United States, 2017. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
[5] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, January 3). Underage Drinking. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
[6] Sacks JJ; Gonzales KR; Bouchery EE; Tomedi LE; Brewer RD; 2010 National and State Costs of Excessive Alcohol Consumption. American journal of preventive medicine.
[7] Emergency Department Visits Involving Underage Alcohol Misuse: 2010 to 2013. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
[8] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, January 3). Underage Drinking. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
[9] Underage Drinking: Myths vs. Facts. Underage Drinking: Myths vs. Facts | Publications and Digital Products.
[10] U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. (2017). Facing addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s report on alcohol, drugs, and health. Retrieved from
[11] National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2019). Alcohol Facts and Statistics. Retrieved from
[12] Grant, B.F., & Dawson, D.A. (1997). Age at onset of alcohol use and its association with DSM-IV alcohol abuse and dependence: Results from the National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey. Journal of Substance Abuse, 9, 103–110.
[13] National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2017). Underage drinking. Retrieved from Underage_Fact.pdf
[14] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2019). Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables. (Detailed Table 2.32B). Rockville, MD: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Retrieved from

About the Author:

Sarah Musick PhotoSarah Musick is a freelance writer who specializes in eating disorder awareness and education. After battling with a 4-years long eating disorder, she made it her mission to help others find hope and healing in recovery.

Her work has been featured on numerous eating disorder blogs and websites. When she’s not writing, Sarah is off traveling the world with her husband.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from multiple physical, emotional, environmental, and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on August 31, 2020
Reviewed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on August 31, 2020
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