Underage drinking is when anyone under the minimum legal drinking age of 21 drinks alcohol.

Underage drinking is a risk that attracts many developing adolescents and teens. When young people try alcohol, they often don’t realize the damaging effects drinking can have on their own lives, their families, and their communities.

Aside from being illegal, underage drinking is a widespread public health problem that poses many risks. 

Here’s why:

Underage drinking is widespread

  • According to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 35.1 percent of 15-year-olds report that they have had at least 1 drink in their lives.
  • About 8.7 million people ages 12–20 (22.7 percent of this age group) reported drinking alcohol in the past month (23 percent of males and 22.5 percent of females).

Young people drink a lot

  • According to the 2013 NSDUH, approximately 5.4 million people (about 14.2 percent) ages 12–20 engaged in binge drinking (15.8 percent of males and 12.4 percent of females).
  • According to the 2013 NSDUH, approximately 1.4 million people (about 3.7 percent) ages 12–20 engaged in heavy drinking (4.6 percent of males and 2.7 percent of females).

Underage drinking risks include:

  • Death – 5,000 people under age 21 die each year from alcohol-related car crashes, homicides, suicides, alcohol poisoning, and other injuries such as falls, burns, and drowning.
  • Serious injuries – More than 190,000 people under age 21 visited an emergency room for alcohol-related injuries in 2008 alone.
  • Impaired judgment – Drinking can cause kids to make poor decisions, which can then result in risky behavior like drinking and driving, sexual activity, or violence.
  • Increased risk for physical and sexual assault – Youth who drink are more likely to carry out or be the victim of a physical or sexual assault.
  • Brain development problems – Research shows that brain development continues well into a person’s twenties. Alcohol can affect this development, and contribute to a range of problems.

Here’s how you can recognize the signs of underage drinking:
Anyone who interacts with young people should pay close attention to the warning signs that may indicate underage drinking. Some of these warning signs include:

  • Academic and/or behavioral problems in school
  • Changing groups of friends
  • Less interest in activities and/or appearance
  • Finding alcohol among a young person’s things or smelling alcohol on their breath
  • Slurred speech
  • Coordination problems
  • Memory and/or concentration problems 

Learn more details and statistics about underage drinking.