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Drinking Teens Eschewing Beer for Hard Liquor

THURSDAY, July 26 -- Hard liquor is the drink of choice in four states among 40 percent of teenagers who try alcohol, according to a new U.S. government survey of teenage drinking.

Bourbon, rum, scotch, vodka and whiskey were consumed more than beer by high school students who drank in Arkansas, New Mexico, Nebraska and Wyoming, according to a report in the current issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a publication of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For the most part, the finding held true for both genders and across all racial groups.

"The rate of teen drinking is pretty dang high," said Dr. James Garbutt, a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "It is intriguing that hard liquor is the preferred beverage. I wouldn't intuitively have thought that," he added.

In an editorial, CDC experts stress that the statistics from the four states may not indicate what is going on nationally among teenagers who drink. But they added, "The findings in this report might reflect an emerging trend in usual beverage consumed among underage drinkers that has been reported in other studies."

"Monitoring the Future (MTF), a national survey of 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-grade students, found that among 12th-grade students, the prevalence of liquor consumption during the 30 days before the survey was higher in 2005 (36.4 percent) than in 1990 (30.8 percent)."

The CDC researchers culled data from a youth risk behavior survey conducted in 2005 that focused on the four states. The number of teens surveyed ranged from 1,615 in Arkansas to 5,634 in New Mexico. The prevalence of drinking ranged from 42.3 percent in New Mexico to 45.4 percent in Wyoming.

In all the states in the survey, liquor was the most popular drink, ranging from 34.1 percent in Nebraska to 44.7 percent in Arkansas. This was followed by beer or malt liquor. Wine was the least popular drink, ranging from just 1.6 percent in Arkansas and Wyoming to 3.1 percent in New Mexico.

With the exception of Nebraska, liquor was the most popular type of alcohol consumed by boys, followed by beer. Beer was the most popular drink among boys in Nebraska, followed by liquor, the researchers found.

Among girls, liquor was the most popular drink in all four states, followed by malt beverages and beer.

As for binge drinking, the prevalence ranged from 28.6 percent in New Mexico to 32 percent of teens in Wyoming. Liquor was the most popular drink for binge drinking in all four states and among both boys and girls, except in Nebraska, where beer was preferred by boys.

"These data also underscore the need to continue the use of evidence-based strategies to reduce youth drinking," the MMWR editors wrote. "Previous studies have indicated that certain strategies are effective, including improved enforcement of minimum legal purchasing-age laws [e.g., through compliance checks in which minors or youthful-looking adults attempt to purchase alcohol from retail establishments] and increased alcohol excise taxes," they added.

The researchers suggested several reasons why hard liquor might be preferable to beer among teens, reasons that included the fact that it's easier to hide alcohol consumption by pouring it into a soft drink, and that the taste might be more palatable to beginning drinkers.

Another reason might be that the alcohol level is higher in liquor, so binge drinkers feel the effect of the alcohol faster, Garbutt said.

Garbutt believes the report confirms that "alcohol is one of our most misused and abused drugs."

Parents should educate their children about alcohol, Garbutt stressed. "Parents need to be aware of children's access to liquor in the home. Whether they want to keep it locked up or whether they want to monitor it, they need to educate their children about drinking," he said.

More information

For more information on teenage drinking, visit the National Library of Medicine.

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Posted: July 2007