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Teenagers drank more than $17 billion worth of alcohol in 2016, a new study finds. Here's why experts worry that COVID-19 has fueled the fire of underage drinking.

Business Insider logo Business Insider 6/18/2021 rhodkin@businessinsider.com (Reed Alexander)
a person looking at the cell phone: Experts fear that the COVID-19 pandemic has fanned the flames of underage alcohol consumption. Vincent Besnault © Vincent Besnault Experts fear that the COVID-19 pandemic has fanned the flames of underage alcohol consumption. Vincent Besnault
  • A study found that young people in the US consumed more than $17 billion worth of alcohol in 2016.
  • One co-author of the study named hard seltzers as a driver of underage alcohol consumption.
  • A psychiatrist told Insider that the pandemic has exacerbated alcohol consumption among youth.
  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Underage youths consumed nearly one-tenth of all the alcoholic drinks sold in the US in 2016, according to a new study, and experts are concerned the trend might have worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study by researchers at the University of North Carolina specifically reviewed alcohol consumption among youths ages 12-20.

It found that people in that age group had imbibed $17.5 billion worth of alcoholic beverages sold that year, or about 8.6% of the 2016 total. The findings were published this month in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

Beverages produced by three manufacturers - AB Inbev, MillerCoors, and Diageo - represented almost half of all of the alcohol consumed by the underaged demographic, the study found.

Pamela Trangenstein, a co-lead author of the study, told Insider in an interview that marketing plays a significant role in driving the consumption of alcohol among young people.

"The research shows time and time again that young people, if they haven't started to drink or if they're exposed to alcohol advertising over time - they're more likely to start drinking. If they've already started drinking, they're more likely to progress to heavier drinking," said Trangenstein, who is an assistant professor of health behavior at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health.

One major factor that has driven recent trends in alcohol consumption among those under the legal age of 21 has been the rise of carbonated beverages which contain alcohol, Trangenstein said.

The class of drinks, which are called hard seltzers or ready-to-drink beverages, skyrocketed in popularity last year, Insider previously reported. Big-name brands in the category include labels like Four Loko and White Claw, which entered the market in 2016.

Trangenstein said that their sugary sweet flavors often appeal to younger tastes.


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"It doesn't taste like alcohol," she said. "It tastes like you're not drinking anything."

Among youths last year, the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics found that more than half (55.3%) of 12th grade students had abused alcohol at at least one point in 2020.

They were followed by 40.7% of 10th graders, and 20.5% of 8th graders, according to the center.

Scott Krakower, a psychiatrist who was not involved in the study about underage drinking, told Insider that the pandemic gave rise to several factors that have exacerbated the issue.

Among the primary drivers are social isolation, depression, self-medication, and ease of access to alcoholic products during the pandemic, said Krakower, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, New York.

As the pandemic wore on, he added, alcohol's temptation grew.

"Usually, drinking ends when you have a place to go to end it," Krakower said. "When the keg party was over, it would be over. In this situation, you're kind of trapped."

He said that some high schoolers held social gatherings at the homes of friends where alcohol was readily available. Some college students, stranded in dormitories, turned to alcohol to mollify their loneliness.

Meanwhile, young people aren't alone in confronting the rising threat of substance use.

Adults registered a significant increase in alcohol consumption and binge-drinking last year, according to the results of a separate survey published in December in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

The survey found that, of 832 respondents, more than 34% said that they had engaged in binge-drinking during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Overall, the IWSR, a London-based organization that tracks data on the consumption of alcoholic beverages, found that US alcohol sales ticked up by 2% last year, which the group said was the largest surge in volume for two decades.

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