In order to prevent adolescents from experimenting with alcohol, policymakers must first understand the factors that contribute to underage drinking. A recent study examined local environmental factors and adolescent perceptions about alcohol, and how these two things affected drinking behaviors.
Alcohol Being Introduced At A Young Age
Underage drinking is associated with an increased risk of becoming addicted to alcohol when compared with individuals that begin drinking after the legal drinking age. When alcohol is introduced at a young age, the user is exposed to all of the risks associated with drinking, and that exposure occurs over a longer period of time.
For the study, the researchers included 13- to 17-year-olds from 1,543 households, totaling 1,478 teens from 50 diverse, non-contiguous cities in California. The adolescents completed at least one survey and were residents of a single city during the three years that data was annually collected.
The teenagers were asked to report on past-year drinking behavior, such as number of drinking days in the past 12 months and how many drinks consumed on a drinking day. They were also asked about the accessibility of alcohol and how underage drinking was tolerated in their community, both by parents and law enforcement.
In addition, the researchers gathered information for each city related to their prevention policies related to underage drinking, the available funds for the enforcement of such programs and the average level of adult alcohol consumption. They also measured the bar density, reflecting the number of alcohol merchants per road mile.
The researchers used multi-level regression analysis to measure the variables and to determine which factors predicted alcohol use among adolescents.
Factors That Affected Alcohol Use
The results showed that both factors determined at the city level and those related to the perceptions of the teenagers about alcohol influenced alcohol consumption in past-year measures. At the city level, weaker alcohol-related policies, lower levels of enforcement funding and a higher bar density were all predictors of past-year alcohol consumption among teenagers.
Individual factors that led to alcohol consumption were a perception of greater availability of alcohol, a higher perception of parental approval and weaker enforcement.
There were two findings that surprised the researchers. One was that while a higher bar density was a predictor of increased alcohol consumption among youth, there was a mediating effect in the youth perceptions of availability and approval. Youth that lived in a location with a higher bar density tended to perceive a higher level of alcohol availability and a higher level of parental approval than those living in cities with a lower bar density.
The second surprising finding was an interaction that occurred between adult alcohol consumption and time. In locations with a higher level of adult alcohol consumption, the rate of past-year drinking for teens increased more steeply across the three years that that survey was conducted.
Study’s Limits And Further Alcohol Research
The researchers note several limitations to the findings. One such limitation is the use of self-report and recall among the teenagers in the study, which may affect bias. In addition, the sample of adolescents used may not be representative of the adolescents living in that city. Finally, the researchers used the measure of funding for enforcement, rather than a measure of the effectiveness, visibility or other aspect of the enforcement efforts.
Further research may be necessary to get a full picture of how city-level policies and attitudes affect adolescent drinking behaviors. It may be helpful to gather more data about the specific tools used to enforce adolescent drinking in a city, as well as measures of its effectiveness. In addition, more data could be gathered to determine adult drinking patterns over the course of the study period.
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