Epidemiology of Alcohol Use and Alcohol Problems

Part 2. Longitudinal Trends

Long-term Decline in Alcohol Use

The Monitoring the Future (MTF) project has been collecting prevalence data on alcohol and drug use among high-school seniors since 1975, thereby providing a unique resource for longitudinal analysis of trends in rates of alcohol and drug problems. Despite growing concerns in the media about "binge drinking" and other drinking problems among adolescents and college students, epidemiological evidence from the Monitoring the Future (MTF) project and other long-term surveys indicates that alcohol use and heavy drinking have been on the decline in these populations for a number of years. As shown in the following graph, the thirty-day prevalence of alcohol use reached a peak of over 70 percent of high school seniors in the late 1970s and, then, went into a steady decline until the early 1990s. Over the past decade, the monthly prevalence of alcohol use has continued to decline, reaching an all-time low of 40 percent in 2011. This graph also shows that annual estimates of daily drinking among high-school seniors, which peaked at 6.9 percent in 1979, have declined over the past three decades to 2.1 percent in 2011. Clearly, this problematic form of frequent drinking, like alcohol use in general, is less common among adolescents today than it was 35 years ago.

Daily and Monthly Drinking 1975-2006

Downward Trends in Heavy Alcohol Use

A similar picture emerges in the next graph, which shows longitudinal trends in so-called "binge" drinking —having 5 or more drinks in a row in the previous two weeks—for high school seniors, tenth graders, and eighth graders in the expanded MTF survey. Like thirty-day prevalence of alcohol use and the use of most illegal substances, heavy drinking reached a peak among high seniors in the late 1970s and early 1980s before trending downward until the early 1990s. Heavy drinking has generally declined for all three grade levels throughout the late 1990s and the early years of the 21st century. Thus, there is no evidence here of recent increases in heavy or "binge" drinking among adolescents.

"Binge" Drinking, 1975-2011

College Drinking Has Also Decreased

There is also little evidence of increases in alcohol use or deviant drinking among college students over the past few decades. To the contrary, an annual survey of first-year college students known as the Cooperative Institutional Research Project (CIRP) conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) has recorded a steady decline since 1982 in the percentage of freshmen who drink beer occasionally or frequently. The graph below, which depicts the declining longitudinal trend in "occasional" or "frequent" beer drinking among college freshmen, is adapted from a website sponsored by the brewers of Budweiser and other popular brands of beer, the Anheuser-Busch Companies: http://www.alcoholstats.com.

Examine this graph closely. You will notice that the y-axis (which is not labeled) has been truncated at about 30 percent. Why do you suppose the y-axis doesn't start at zero, like the Monitoring the Future graphs shown above? In other words, how does the decision by the designer of this graph to focus only on the upper part of the y-axis affect the appearance of the downward trend in beer drinking by college students? If you want to see additional results from the CIRP survey of first-year college students, more information is available at the following HERI website: http://heri.ucla.edu/PDFs/pubs/TFS/Norms/Monographs/TheAmericanFreshman2011.pdf

Percentage of College Freshmen who Drink Beer Occasionally or Frequently

(Source: http://www.alcoholstats.com)
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