High Intensity Drinking among Underage Young Adults

About three quarters of young adults who are under the legal drinking age do not drink large amounts of alcohol in one sitting. But a fair number do drink more than 5, 10, or 15 drinks in a row and run risks of severe consequences.


The numbers come from a recent study based on data from Monitoring the Future. The study compared the surveys from participants as high school seniors in 2005 through 2013 and then as underage young adults in 2006 through 2014.


Almost a quarter (24.2%) of young adults aged 19/20 reported binge drinking, consuming 5+ drinks on at least one occasion in the past two weeks. More than one tenth (10.3%) reported high-intensity drinking, having 10+ drinks on at least one occasion in the past two weeks. A little less than one in twenty (4.2%) reported having more than 15 drinks in a row in that time frame.


The study then looked at levels of drunkenness. Being moderately or very drunk as a common experience when drinking was reported by about one third of underage young adults (33.1%). Just under one third (29.6%) said they usually stayed drunk for at least three hours.


Do high school seniors who drink more than 10 drinks in a row become young adults who do? Actually, less than half of high-intensity drinkers in 12th grade reported high-intensity drinking one or two years later. At the same time, being a high-intensity drinker in 12th grade is a reliable predictor of high-risk drinking in underage young adulthood. Not drinking alcohol at all until after high school was linked to dramatically less high-risk alcohol use among underage young adults.


The study also looked at the associations between these findings and other factors like college status, parental education, living situation, race/ethnicity, and gender. College students enrolled full-time in a 4-year college were at higher risk to drink 5+, 10+, and 15+ drinks. Next were those not in college or in college part time. Full-time 2-year college students reported lower levels. Full-time 4-year college students who were not living with parents were at the highest risk. As found in other studies, men were more likely to report high-intensity drinking than women, as were white young adults compared to those of other races and ethnicities.


Based on this and prior research, the investigators point to the importance of general interventions to help children and teens delay alcohol use and specific interventions to help higher-risk teens transition into young adulthood.


Patrick, M. E., & Terry-McElrath, Y. M. (2017). High-intensity drinking by underage young adults in the United States. Addiction, 112(1), 82-93. doi: 10.1111/add.13556. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27514864