Binge drinking among US high schoolers hit a record low in 2018

Drinking is getting less and less popular among teens.
Drinking is getting less and less popular among teens.
Image: Reuters/Darrin Zammit Lupi
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Many Americans over 30 may remember high school as a period of drunken debauchery. It’s not really like that anymore.

According to 2018 survey data released today (Dec. 17) by the National Institute of Health (NIH), only 13.8% of 12th graders reported binge drinking within the past two weeks. This is the lowest rate of binge drinking, which is defined as five or more drinks in a row, since the survey began in 1991. It is down from a high of 31.5% in 1998. The share of 12th graders who say they drank any alcohol at all is also down, from a high of 78% in 1991 to 53% in 2018.

Binge drinking has also declined among eighth and 10th graders. The data is based on responses from more than 40,000 students in nearly 400 schools in the US.

Has alcohol been replaced by other drugs? Not really.

The share of students reporting using marijuana or other popular drugs, like MDMA and Adderall, is either falling or remaining steady. Only the vaping of nicotine has substantially increased. The share of 12th graders who reported vaping nicotine in the past 30 days rose from 11% in 2017 to 20.9% in 2018. Alcohol’s popularity has been falling for decades, so vaping, which has only been popular for a couple of years, is unlikely to have been a substitute.

It’s not entirely clear to researchers why alcohol consumption, and specifically binge drinking, has declined. Dr. Bohyun Joy Jang, a researcher with the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, has studied alcohol’s fall. Jang told the New York Times she believes it was likely due to successful public-health initiatives aimed at informing students and parents of the perils. The same survey shows that disapproval of binge drinking among 12th graders is up from 63% in 1999 to 76% in 2018.

This is all extremely good news. Binge drinking causes lasting damage. A recently released study published in the British Medical Journal (paywall) found that from 1999 to 2016 cirrhosis-related deaths in the US jumped by 65 percent and liver cancer deaths doubled over that time. This was mostly due to alcohol abuse, and binge drinkers were most at risk. Thankfully, the next generation of Americans will likely be much better off.