The Johns Hopkins Gazette: April 23, 2001
April 23, 2001
VOL. 30, NO. 31


Study Asks Public About Underage Drinking

By Tim Parsons
Bloomberg School of Public Health
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Individual factors, such as concern for young people or frequency of drinking, are better predictors of public support for initiatives designed to curb underage drinking than demographic traits, such as age or race, according to a new study conducted by the Bloomberg School of Public Health. The study also suggests there is broad public support for such initiatives, regardless of political party affiliation. The results are extremely beneficial to alcohol policy advocates who want to mobilize public support to control underage drinking. The study is among the first to examine individual and demographic traits to predict public attitudes toward alcohol policy. The findings appear in the April 16 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

"Underage drinking is a significant problem in the United States, but local government agencies and community groups have very limited resources to battle the problem," explains William Latimer, lead author of the study and assistant professor of mental hygiene at the School of Public Health. "If these groups are going to build support for change, they need to know who is listening and who supports these changes. With this information, policy advocates can target their message to have the greatest impact and enlist the greatest support."

Underage drinking in the United States is associated with traffic accidents, school failure, delinquency and sexually transmitted diseases among adolescents, according to previous studies. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that traffic accidents are the leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 15 and 20. More than 30 percent of these deaths are alcohol related.

For the study, researchers contacted 7,000 adults over age 18 through a nationwide random telephone survey. The investigators asked each person to indicate his or her level of support for tax increases on alcohol and policies that regulate alcohol marketing, public consumption of alcohol, alcohol distribution and youth access to alcohol.

Next, the researchers compiled demographic and individual data on each person contacted. Respondents were asked questions about the frequency at which they drank alcohol and their level of concern for drunk driving, smoking and sex among teens. Each person also was asked a series of questions to gauge awareness of teen issues, such as teen alcohol use and violence, proposed tax increases to deter teen drinking and the marketing of alcohol to young people.

Overall, the study shows that women, infrequent drinkers and adults who are aware of teen issues or have concern for teens most often supported all the measures to curb underage drinking. Older adults supported regulating public consumption of alcohol. Younger adults in the study, or those under age 25, showed little support for measures that regulate distribution of alcohol but did support tax increases designed to discourage underage drinking.

Among each person's individual traits, concern for teens was generally the strongest predictor of support for all the alcohol policies.

"Previous awareness campaigns such as 'Just say no' or 'This is your brain on drugs' were specifically targeted to encourage young people to stay away from drugs. The study suggests that increasing awareness among adults about the many bad outcomes that happen when young people drink may help by facilitating the promotion of traits that ultimately lead to changes in policy. Media campaigns targeted to adults may mobilize more resources and people to support effective policies that will have an impact," Latimer explains.

Alexander C. Wagenaar, Eileen M. Harwood and Michael Newcomb assisted in the research of this study. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the National Institute on Drug Abuse provided funding.