Epidemiology of Alcohol Use and Deviant Drinking

Part 2. Longitudinal Trends in Alcohol Use

Declining Alcohol Use among High-School Seniors

Despite growing concerns in the media about "binge drinking" and other drinking problems among adolescents, college students, and other young adults, epidemiological evidence from the Monitoring the Future (MTF) project and other long-term surveys indicates that alcohol use and heavy drinking have been on the decline in these populations for a number of years. As shown in the following graph, the thirty-day prevalence of alcohol use reached a peak of over 70 percent of high school seniors in the late 1970s and, then, went into a steady decline until the early 1990s. Over the past decade, alcohol use has remained relatively stable, with approximately 50 percent using within the past 30 days.

A similar picture emerges in the next graph, which shows longitudinal trends in heavy alcohol use—having 5 or more drinks in a row in the previous two weeks—for high school seniors, tenth graders, and eighth graders from the expanded MTF data set. Like thirty-day prevalence of alcohol use and the use of most illegal substances, heavy drinking reached a peak among high seniors in the late 1970s and early 1980s before trending downward until the early 1990s. Heavy drinking has remained relatively stable for all three grade levels throughout the 1990s and the early years of the 21st century. Thus, there is no evidence here of recent increases in heavy or "binge" drinking among adolescents.

College Drinking on the Decline

There is also little evidence of increases in alcohol use or deviant drinking among college students over the past few decades. To the contrary, an annual survey of first-year college students conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) has recorded a steady decline since 1982 in the percentage of freshmen who drink beer occasionally or frequently. The graph below, which depicts the declining longitudinal trend in beer drinking among college freshmen, is adapted from a website sponsored by the Anheuser-Busch Companies: http://www.alcoholstats.com/Main.asp. Note that the y-axis in this graph has been truncated at 40 percent, which makes the negative slope from 73.7 percent to 45.5 percent appear steeper than it would if the y-axis started at zero. Additional findings from and information about the HERI survey are available at: http://www.gseis.ucla.edu/heri/heri.html

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