Teen Binge Drinking: The Economic Side

By: Shaan Fye, Editor-in-Chief

For underage Americans, 90% of all alcohol consumed is in the form of binge drinking. This form of alcohol consumption, defined by the NIH as 5 drinks in two hours for men and 4 drinks for women, has enormous health costs, to be sure. But everyone knows that, and that knowledge has not been terribly effective at capping the entangled roots of the problem. The literature hasn’t been enough to convince Americans, specifically the under-21 demographic. In 2010 alone, there were over 189,000 under-21 E.R. visits relating to conditions brought about by alcohol. Even more disturbing, 4,300 teens die every year directly due to alcohol. Obviously, a better effort must be taken to more successfully counter this problem. In line with my personal interests, I want to take on underage binge drinking by examining the economic effects of that decision.

Why do teens decide to binge drink?

The most common answer is stress. Dr. Walker, the director of adolescent medicine at Seattle Children’s Hospital, explains, “The stress of figuring out gender roles, of doing well in school, and of the larger social and economic realities has led this generation’s teenagers to be more anxious than previous generations.” Elucidating on this growing stress problem, a study presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies in 2014 demonstrated that LBGT teens’ higher binge drinking rate is a product of increased stress. As more literature focused on the stress correlation is assembled, the tide will shift on how to combat stress-related binge drinking as well as social drinking in teenagers.

In my own personal experience as a high school student, I have been fortunate enough to have developed effective and safe stress-relieving mechanisms that allow me to function at a high level while combatting stress. At the same time, I do think that alcohol can be an alluring option for someone that doesn’t have those mechanisms in place. As the workload mounts towards the second-half of one’s high school years, coping mechanisms developed years earlier come into play. Those not used to pushing themselves or feeling any stress begin to falter when the workload increases in intensity. Not turning to alcohol could easily become harder and harder, given the intense pressure to outperform highly-achieving student peers. This is a situation I sympathize with as one who finds new and effective ways to manage stress every day.

Relieving stress, the right way.

Establishing alternative, safer methods of catharsis will be integral in developing a well-tailored approach. This can range from yoga to basketball, from debate to science olympiad. Relieving stress brought about by school cannot involve a substance like alcohol. In fact, surveyed teenagers demonstrated that drinking is directly correlated with feeling more like a social outcast and increased social stress. Simply put, the danger of using alcohol to relive stress is a runaway feedback loop.

What I wish to do is also present the detrimental economics in binge drinking. While the health problems are clearly severe, showing the economics and the damage to one’s earning potential paints a disturbing picture as well. The big link is to academic performance. The correlations between frequency of drinking and one’s academic achievement are clear: Of students that binge drink, 46% report getting “mostly D’s/F’s” while only 17% report getting “mostly A’s.” The study finds these numbers become more and more skewed towards the lower end of the grade spectrum as alcohol use increases. Not only do grades drop, but cognitive decline increases as well as the risk of becoming dependent. In a 1999 Harvard School of Public Health National College Alcohol Survey of over 14,000 students, the earlier the age at which persons ages 19 and older first drank to intoxication, the more likely they were to experience alcohol dependence.

The economic reason to not binge drink as an under-21 comes down to this: a lowered investment of human capital brought about by an increase in drinking leads to less productive workers who earn less and have a lower standard of living. These workers bear the brunt of their earlier decisions, but less tax revenue and less economic surplus in general hurts the broader population.

In a 1993 College Drinking Study, drinking in high school and college leads to “college-educated males’ future annual earnings being reduced by 1.6 percent to 3.7 percent” and “college-educated females’ future annual earnings being reduced by 2 percent to 9.8 percent.”

The effects of pursuing this stress-relieving activity are not only counterproductive to mental wellbeing, but also hurt the future earning potential of a myriad number of bright students. Reducing the immediate 7.3 billion dollar cost to the United States because of teenage binge drinking is only the beginning. We must address the causes that lead a student to embark on this self-destructive path. This is a path I hope none of my friends and my acquaintances, as well as the entire student population, should feel the need to take. Highlighting the logic puts the reason to say no front and center: if you binge drink, you’ll hurt your ability to generate wealth while endangering your health. Let’s be smart, even in times of great stress.

Agree? Disagree? Want someone to talk to? Contact Shaan Fye at shaanfye@atlasbusinessjournal.org.