Teens drink less often than adults, but drink more per occasion. This can impair their judgment and put them and others at risk of physical harm and dangerous behavior, including:
Underage drivers are more susceptible than adults to the alcohol-induced impairment of driving skills. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 21-year-old minimum drinking age laws have reduced alcohol traffic fatalities by 13 percent and have saved an estimated 28,765 lives since 1975. Still, about 1155 persons under 21 die every year in car crashes involving underage drinking.
Further, the majority of underage drinking related deaths are not traffic related. Instead, they are due to other fatal accidents, including homicides, suicides, poisoning, burns, falls, and drownings.
Emergency room visits and hospitalization
In 2011, 189,000 persons under 21 visited emergency departments due to alcohol use. This represents 43% of all underage emergency departments visits due to drug abuse.
In 2008, almost 40,000 youth ages 15-20 were admitted to hospitals due to alcohol problems. In most cases, the primary or secondary diagnosis was acute intoxication. One quarter of the patients also had experienced a physical injury due to a traffic accident, being assaulted, or getting into a fight. The mean length of stay was 4.9 days and the mean cost was $19,200 per stay.
Altered brain development
The human brain continues to develop into a person's early 20's. There is concerning evidence from small-scale human brain imaging studies that underage drinking can harm the developing brain. In the long term, heavy alcohol use by teens can alter the trajectory of brain development and cause lingering cognitive defects; whether these defects are permanent is not now known.
Reduced academic performance
There is a relationship between binge drinking and grades. A government study published in 2007 showed that approximately two-thirds of students with “mostly A’s” are non-drinkers, while nearly half of the students with “mostly D’s and F’s” report binge drinking.
Current teen drinkers are twice as likely to have sex as nondrinkers. Adolescents who drink are also more likely to engage in risky sex, like having sex with someone they don't know or failing to use birth control.
Other dangerous behaviors
As compared to nondrinkers, teens who drink are more likely to get into a car with a driver who has been drinking, smoke pot, use inhalants, or carry a weapon. Binge drinking substantially increases the likelihood of these activities.
By preventing easy teen access to alcohol, we can reduce this injury.