March 2013

Many Doctors Don’t Ask Teens About Alcohol

In a new study, more than one-third of 10th graders reported recent alcohol use. But many didn’t recall their doctors asking them about drinking or talking to them about its effects. Doctors may be missing opportunities to prevent underage alcohol use, the study suggests.

Unhealthy alcohol use is the third-leading preventable cause of death nationwide. Alcohol is the most widely used substance of abuse among youth, and dangerous binge drinking is common among underage drinkers.

Many adults, research shows, cut back on risky drinking if doctors ask about and discuss alcohol. NIH scientists set out to see how often doctors discuss alcohol with teens. They asked more than 2,500 10th graders nationwide about their alcohol use and whether their doctor discussed drinking at their last medical exam.

More than 1 in 3 students said they had used alcohol in the past month, and about 1 in 4 said they had binged. Binge drinking means having 5 or more drinks per occasion for males and 4 or more for females.

Of the students who had seen a doctor in the past year, 54% said they were asked about drinking, and 40% said they were advised about related harms. Of the students who reported past-month problem drinking (frequent alcohol use, binging or drunkenness), only about 25% were advised to reduce or stop drinking.

“Alcohol is by far the drug of choice among youth,” says NIAAA Acting Director Dr. Kenneth R. Warren. “The findings indicate that we must redouble our efforts to help clinicians make alcohol screening a routine part of patient care for young people in the United States.”