Adolescents drinking alcohol
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Overall alcohol use has declined among teenagers during the last two decades, but not dangerously high levels of binge drinking.

Downing up to 15 alcoholic drinks in a row remains popular among high school seniors, according to a new study published today in JAMA Pediatrics, part of the Journal of the American Medical Association Network.

Twenty percent of seniors said they had consumed five or more drinks in a row at least once during the previous two weeks. However, 10 percent had 10 or more drinks, and 6 percent had at least 15 drinks in one sitting.

These drinks included a 12-ounce container of beer, a four-ounce glass of wine, a mixed drink, a wine cooler or a shot of liquor.

“To our knowledge, this is the first national study to date to examine extreme binge drinking among youth,” said Megan E. Patrick, Ph.D., principal investigator and co-author of “Extreme Binge Drinking Among 12th Grade Students in the United States: Prevalence and Predictors.”

The study was based on 16,332 students from 2005 to 2011. During that time, the lowest level of binge drinking, defined as five drinks, dropped from 22 percent to 18 percent.

However, Patrick said, “the more increased level has not been changing.”

The heaviest binge drinkers across the board tended to be young men, particularly white students. Rates of students consuming 15-plus drinks were also higher in the South and in rural areas. Children of college-educated parents tended to binge more on five or so drinks and less at the higher end.

“The rates are much lower for black youth than other youth,” Patrick added. Eleven percent of study respondents were African Americans.

The binge study doesn’t explain the lower incidence, but religion is important to African-Americans and contributes to reducing drug and alcohol use among some high school students, according to a 2007 study, “Religiosity and Adolescent Alcohol, Cigarette and Marijuana Use,” published in Social Work in Public Health.

However, alcohol is the leading drug used by African-American teenagers and they are exposed to more alcohol advertising in magazines, on radio and on television, according to a 2012 report from the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

David Jernigan, Ph.D., the director of CAMY, cites two reasons.

“First, brands are specifically targeting African-American audiences and, secondly, African-American media habits make them more vulnerable to alcohol advertising in general because of higher levels of media consumption,” Jernigan said in a statement. “As a result, there should be a commitment from alcohol marketers to cut exposure to this high-risk population.”

Messages in music also influence African-American teens. A CAMY report from August 2013 noted that nearly 40 percent of “urban” songs (rap, hip-hop and R&B) mentioned alcohol, including specific brands. Previous CAMY studies reported alcohol mentions as high as 64 percent in popular rap music.

Teens, in general, are also influenced by what they see on TV and in movies whether it’s the popularity of alcohol shots or the boozy, home-alone party on steroids as portrayed in Project X, which grossed $102.7 million worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo.

Shots and shooters come in hundreds of flavors to tempt teens. The tiny glasses make it easy to down lots of shots quickly before the effects are felt. Plus, some drinkers are filling up empty soda, water and sports beverage bottles with questionable quantities for alcohol. There’s even an app for that called Shots iGot.

“It’s easier to get to those extreme levels of binge drinking with those concentrated drinks,” said Patrick, research assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. “Media portrayals reduce the perceived risk, and that’s a problem.”

Studies show that teens are also consuming 10 or more drinks for special occasions and events, such as spring break, big games, holidays and birthdays.

Experts are concerned about the dangers of alcohol consumption among adolescents and consider it a public health problem. Young people who drink excessively are at risk for alcohol poisoning, brain damage, liver problems, alcoholism in older age and other health issues. Alcohol-related fatalities claim the lives of 5,000 youths under age 21 each year, the researchers said.

African-American teenagers are already at risk for a host of health disparities that are exacerbated by alcohol. And if they become alcoholics as adults, they are more prone to having financial, legal, job and relationship problems.

Yanick Rice Lamb is an associate professor of journalism and interim assistant chair of the Department of Media, Journalism and Film at Howard University. Follow her on Twitter at @yrlamb.