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Alcohol: The Most Popular Choice

July 05, 2013  |  Falmouth Enterprise

By Dr. Michael Bihari

This article is based on information from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)

Alcohol is by far the most widely used psychoactive drug in the United States. Four in five men and women over the age of twelve have tried it, two and a half times the number to have experimented with marijuana. 

What Every Parent and Teen Should Know About Alcohol

Teens who drink usually start with beer, wine or wine coolers, a sweet-tasting blend of wine and carbonated fruit juice, which many adolescents tend to guzzle like soda. Although many teenagers believe that these drinks are “safer” than hard liquor, it’s the amount of alcohol you drink, not what you drink, that matters. One twelve-ounce can of beer and a four-ounce glass of wine each has the same amount of alcohol as a shot of eighty-proof whiskey, and wine coolers have the same amount of alcohol as many beers. 

Legal Definition of Drunkenness 

There is no generalization we can make about how much alcohol it takes for a teenager to get drunk. Everyone is different in his or her ability to metabolize alcohol, and women metabolize it less efficiently than men. However, there is a legal definition of drunkenness—the blood alcohol content, or BAC, which can be done using a Breathalyzer test, which measures the weight of alcohol in a volume of breath, or a blood test. BAC is expressed as a percentage.

The legal limit varies from one state to another, ranging from .02 to .09. In Massachusetts you are considered legally drunk if your BAC is .08 or higher. However, if you are under 21 you are considered legally drunk if your BAC is .02 or higher.

Signs of Alcohol Use

  • Slurred speech
  • Impaired judgment, motor skills, and poor coordination
  • Confusion
  • Tremors
  • Drowsiness
  • Agitation
  • Combative behavior
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Depression
  • Smell of alcohol on breath

While the most serious physical effects of excessive drinking (such as liver, brain, and heart disease) typically take many years to develop, alcohol abuse can exact a terrible toll on adolescents’ lives.

Some Serious Consequences of Teen Drinking

Alcohol use is involved in about half of all sexual assaults involving adolescents and college students, including date rape. A high proportion of teens—one in six—admit to having experienced alcohol-induced blackouts, where they could not recall the events of the previous evening.

Sexually active teens who overindulge are also less likely to protect themselves against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, for the simple reason that they’re too drunk to take the necessary precautions before having intercourse. 

A point to impress upon your teen: It isn’t just alcoholics who suffer the serious repercussions of alcohol abuse. A single episode of reckless drinking can end in tragedy, as when a boy slides behind the steering wheel of a car while drunk in, or when an intoxicated young woman accepts an invitation to continue partying back at a guy’s apartment.

The Conversation

Be prepared. Your teen may employ some interesting logic to gain permission to drink alcohol. “C’mon, Dad, the three of us are just gonna split a six-pack while watching the playoffs at Andy’s house. How come you and your friends get to do it and we can’t? Besides, it’s not like I’m smoking weed or shooting up heroin. It’s just beer.”

In talking about alcohol use with your teen, discuss some of the contradictions in our societal views about drinking. Your candor might be appreciated. Here is an example of what you could say:

“It does seem hypocritical, doesn’t it, that we say it’s okay for adults to drink but not to smoke marijuana. Maybe nobody should use alcohol at all, but it’s such a part of our culture that I don’t see us going back to the days of Prohibition anytime soon.

“Until you turn twenty-one, our rule on alcohol is simple: You are not to drink, if for no other reason than it is against the law. Once you’re of legal age, then it will be your decision whether or not to use alcohol.  You are never to use illicit drugs; I don’t care how old you are.”

If you are a parent who thinks “My kid may be drinking, but at least he’s not doing drugs,” think again, you may be placing your child at risk and you may be breaking the law.


Brochures and Fact Sheets from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Easy-to-read information covering a wide range of alcohol-related topics.

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