How Teens Manage to Get Their Hands on Alcohol

Teen boys and girls laughing and drinking beer
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Most adolescents find that obtaining alcohol is easy. One reason for this is many teens get their alcohol from a convenient source: their own homes.

A 2005 study by the American Medical Association (AMA) found that a shocking number of parents and other adults in the U.S. provided alcohol to this generation's underage drinkers. Compiled from data from two surveys, the AMA study addressed the availability of alcohol to teens and also examined parents' opinions and behaviors about providing alcohol to minors.

Parents Commonly Supply Alcohol to Kids

"From a public health standpoint, these findings are frankly disturbing," former AMA president J. Edward Hill, MD, had said in a press release. "While it is of great concern to see how easily teens, especially young girls, get alcohol, it is alarming to know that legal-age adults, even parents, are supplying the alcohol."

The teen poll, which surveyed youth aged 13 to 18, revealed that nearly half of minors reported having obtained alcohol at some point. In all age groups, girls consistently ranked higher than boys in their ability to obtain alcohol.

Policies and Laws Are Often Ignored

In the adult poll, which surveyed parents with children aged 12 to 20, researchers found that nearly 1 in 4 parents agreed that teens should be able to drink at home with their parents present.

"Policies and law enforcement efforts to stop minors from obtaining alcohol are important, but this data reveals how easily avoided those policies and laws can be when legal-aged buyers are the leading source of alcohol for children," said Hill. "And even parents who do not buy for their children could be unwitting sources if their alcohol at home is left unsecured."

Why It's Easy for Teens to Get Alcohol

Two out of three teens, aged 13 to 18, said it was easy to get alcohol from their homes without parents knowing about it. One-third responded that was easy to obtain alcohol from their own parents knowingly, and 2 out of 5 teens said it was even easier when it was from a friend's parent. And 1 in 4 teens has attended a party where minors were drinking in front of parents.

"Parents allowing underage children to drink under their supervision are under a dangerous misperception," said Hill. "Injuries and car accidents after such parent-hosted parties remind us that no parent can completely control the actions of intoxicated youth, during or after a party. And the main message children hear is that drinking illegally is okay."

Other key findings of the two polls included:

  • Nearly 1 in 4 teens aged 13 to 18 and 1 in 3 girls aged 16 to 18 said their own parents have supplied them with alcohol. Teens who obtained alcohol from their parents over the course of six months reported that parents had been their supplier three times on average.
  • While 7 in 10 parents with children aged 12 to 20 disagreed with the statement that teen drinking was OK if a parent were present, 3 in 4 said it is likely that teenagers were getting their alcohol from someone else's parent—and that they knew about it.
  • 1 in 4 parents with children aged 12 to 20 said they have allowed their teens to drink with their supervision in the past six months. Approximately 1 in 12 indicated they have allowed their teen's friends to also drink under their supervision in the past six months.
  • While less than 1 in 10 parents with children aged 12 to 20 said they allowed their teen and their friends to drink with supervision during the previous six months, nearly twice as many teens attended a party where the alcohol was provided by someone else's parents. (And 1 in 4 teens attended a party where minors were drinking with parents present.) This discrepancy suggests parents are not always aware that other parents are allowing their own children to drink.

"The AMA applauds parents who discourage and disallow underage drinking," Hill said. "We hope that such parents willing to stand up for their children's health will be more vocal in their communities, letting children and other parents know that no adult should substitute their judgment for a teen's own parents. Drinking is not a rite of passage. Fatal car accidents, injuries and assaults, and irreversible damage to the brain are not rites of passage for any child."

Teenagers Must Be Educated About the Risks of Alcohol Use

The AMA concluded that the poll results underscored a need for physicians to counsel parents on the health risks of alcohol use, and to better advocate for policies that would restrict access to minors.

"Alcohol is everywhere," said Steven Harris, a 14-year-old from San Bruno, Calif. "Young people see ads everywhere. We see drinking on TV and in the movies, and we see it at parties and at home. And it is probably harder for teens to get into an R-rated movie than to get alcohol. It's a joke."

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  1. American Medical Association. Teenage drinking key findings. 2005. 

  2. AlcoholPolicyMD.com. Adults Most Common Source of Alcohol for Teens, According to Poll of Teens 13-18. August 8, 2005.