NEW YORK — One in five high school seniors reports binge drinking in the last two weeks, and one in 10 reports “extreme” binge drinking — having 10 or more drinks on one occasion, according to a new study.
Analyzing responses from more than 16,000 students surveyed between 2005 and 2011, researchers said they were “surprised” by how many reported alcohol consumption at levels much higher than questionnaires usually cover.
“Students were drinking two or three times the typical binge drinking threshold,” Megan Patrick, who led the new study at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said.
“Consuming 10 or 15 drinks at one time is a lot of alcohol, especially for a teenager,” she told Reuters Health. “Understanding the negative consequences that go along with these very high rates is important.”
The surveys were completed by a nationally representative group of U.S. high school seniors. In all, 20.2 percent of the teenagers said they’d had at least five drinks on one or more occasions in the past two weeks, 10.5 percent had consumed at least 10 drinks in a row and 5.6 percent at least 15 drinks.
One drink was defined in the questionnaire as “a 12-ounce can (or bottle) of beer; a 4-ounce glass of wine; a 12-ounce bottle (or can) of wine cooler; or a mixed drink, shot glass of liquor, or the equivalent.”
Boys were more likely to report heavy drinking than girls across all three categories. For example, 15.1 percent of boys reported recently drinking at least 10 drinks in a row, compared with 5.3 percent of girls.
Likewise, more white students than black and Hispanic students were binge drinkers. Of all white seniors, 12.5 percent said they’d had 10 or more drinks on one occasion, versus 3.2 percent of black students and 7.7 percent of Hispanics.
Rates of the most extreme binge drinking were higher in the South than in the Northeast and West, and higher in rural areas than in urban ones. And although the proportion of youth who reported having at least five or 10 drinks declined slightly during the study period, rates of the highest-level bingeing did not, Patrick and her colleagues reported Monday in JAMA Pediatrics.
“These findings might help explain why some consequences of underage drinking, such as hospitalizations for overdoses, are on the rise, despite general declines in binge drinking,” Ralph W. Hingson and Aaron White, from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Bethesda, Maryland, wrote in an editorial accompanying the study.
Richard Grucza, who studies alcohol use at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, said surveys using the five-drink threshold show binge drinking among teenagers has been “steadily declining” for the last 15 years.
Because of that, he told Reuters Health, “I’m finding this 15 or more number shocking. I would not have guessed that it’s as high as it is.”
Dr. Timothy Naimi, a physician and alcohol epidemiologist at Boston Medical Center who was not involved in the new study, agreed it made an important contribution by looking at multiple categories of binge drinking.
“It’s not just a matter of if kids binge drink, but it’s also a matter of how much that’s occurring and how intensely that’s occurring, meaning how much they’re [consuming] during these binge drinking episodes,” he told Reuters Health. “When youth drink, they tend to drink a lot.”
He pointed out that high schoolers are likely more impaired than adults by the same amount of alcohol, because they tend to be smaller.
“For an alcohol-naive person, [15 drinks] could actually kill them,” Grucza, who also didn’t participate in the new research, said.
“Binge drinking is a big problem among this population … and it leads to the most prevalent causes of death among adolescents,” Naimi said, including accidental injury, such as in a car crash, homicide and suicide.
He said there’s a need for more policy interventions to reduce teenage drinking. That includes youth-specific policies, such as better enforcement of underage drinking laws, but also policies directed at the general population, including adequate alcohol taxes.
“This is a largely preventable problem,” Naimi said.