The High Cost of Underage Drinking

Posted on November 14th, 2013
Posted in Teens

Underage drinking is a concern for many reasons: alcohol can do serious damage to still-developing brains and bodies; minors who drink are more likely to be involved in traffic accidents or to be injured in a violent argument; alcohol is also implicated in a significant number of teen suicides. But there is a further cost to family relationships when underage drinking occurs.

A 2012 article, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, finally put a dollar figure on the problem of underage drinking. According to the research published by a team of Mayo Clinic experts, underage drinking accounted for a whopping $755 million in hospital costs in 2008.

The Mayo researchers wanted to see how often drinking by minors resulted in a hospital visit, who was most often taken to the hospital for alcohol-related problems and how those visits affect the rest of us in terms of medical costs. The team looked at hospital discharge records to find minors who had been treated for alcohol use disorder (AUD). An AUD diagnosis would include symptoms such as drunkenness, alcohol dependency, non-dependent alcohol abuse and mental disorders related to alcohol abuse.

Researchers were given access to a national database for hospital stays known as the National Inpatient Sample, or NIS, from which they evaluated how often minors were hospitalized for alcohol abuse, what were the common characteristics among those hospitalized and how effective was the treatment. The 2008 NIS database was the most recent available source. After collecting data from the NIS the team used Census Bureau population estimates to calculate rates of incidence. Here is some of what they found:

  • One-fourth of teen AUD admittances were the result of an automobile accident or altercation. Those hospital stays cost $505 million.
  • Each year 18 of each 10,000 males and 12 of each 10,000 females are hospitalized for alcohol use disorder.
  • AUD-linked hospitalizations were most common in the Midwest (36.8 percent). Teens in the South were hospitalized at a 20 percent rate of incidence and hospitalizations were lowest out West at 17.7 percent.
  • Asians, Hispanics and Pacific Islanders had the lowest rate of alcohol use disorder hospitalizations. Black youth tended to have fewer hospitalizations compared to whites.  Native Americans and teens of mixed race showed the highest rates of hospitalization, though their total number of AUD hospitalizations were actually small.

More than 70 percent of teens in high school say that they’ve tried alcohol at least one time. And though just over 20 percent admit to binge drinking, when a teenager does drink they tend to drink heavily. That sort of drinking puts teens at risk for all kinds of physical harm from car crashes to fights and even homicide or suicide.

A preponderance of mental health research shows that many teens who drink heavily in high school go on to abuse alcohol in adulthood. This makes underage drinking a predictor of adult alcohol abuse. The costs of treating alcohol use disorder in adults would necessitate another study, but certainly the costs would be large. On the other hand, curbing underage drinking could lower costs and injury in youth and later on.

The $755 million bill for hospitalizing underage drinkers is just part of the price we pay when minors get involved with alcohol. Underage drinking also leads to physical endangerment, damaged relationships and adult abuse of alcohol. The Mayo Clinic has made it standard practice to have all patients admitted for AUD to be seen by an addiction specialist and referred for post-hospitalization treatment.

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