Introduction: Alcohol is the drug of choice for youth in the United States. By 8th grade, more than 40% of youth have used alcohol; by 12th grade, almost 80% have done so (MTF, 2003). And many of these young people begin drinking at relatively early ages. On average, boys start drinking earlier than girls, and whites and Native Americans start drinking earlier than youth of other race/ethnicities. As alcohol consumption is such a high prevalence behavior among young people, it is crucial to understand the initiation of drinking as well as possible, so as to facilitate and inform interventions to delay this behavior. One facet of this involves investigating trends in the initiation of drinking.
Methods: Multiple years of data from 3 national surveys, Monitoring the Future (MTF)—1975 to 2003 for 12th graders, 1993 to 2003 for 8th and 10th graders; the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA) [now called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)]—1991 to 1998; and the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS)—1991 to 2003, were analyzed using joinpoint analysis to further understanding of trends in the initiation of drinking by youth. The present analysis examines whether the age of drinking initiation has changed over time and evaluates trends in the percentages of youth who start drinking by various grades.
Results: Simultaneous examination of data from the 3 surveys indicates that 7th and 8th grades (when most youth are 13–14) are peak years for the initiation of drinking. Further, the present analysis shows that although the percentage of youth who start drinking early (before age 13) has declined (YRBSS, MTF), the average age of initiation of drinking for these “very early starters” did not change over the period 1991 to 1998 (NHSDA/NSDUH). At the same time, an upward shift in the “normative” age of initiation has occurred (NHSDA/NSDUH, MTF). Results of analyses by gender and race/ethnicity indicate similar trends over time.
Conclusion: A more nuanced understanding of the initiation of drinking can have important implications for prevention.