Declining Teenage Drinking: A Global Phenomenon?
Summary and key points
In 2015, de Looze et al. published a summary of alcohol consumption trend data up to the 2010 wave of the Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children study. They identified marked declines in adolescent alcohol use across the majority of participating countries.
Since then, researchers have been increasingly careful to note that declines in adolescent alcohol consumption may only be a phenomenon in high-income countries (HICs), reflecting common cultural and socio-economic experiences.
In addition, the clear evidence that the global alcohol industry has been focusing its attention on growing its markets in lower and middle-income countries (LMICs) raised the potential that declines in adolescent alcohol use in HICs are being offset by growth in adolescent alcohol use in relatively underdeveloped markets.
The original research by Smith et al. provides the first comprehensive attempt to assess recent alcohol consumption trends in LMICs. They find, contrary to expectation, that alcohol use in adolescents has largely declined, in some cases quite markedly.
As with HICs, these trends are not uniform; in some countries and regions, increases in alcohol use prevalence among young teenagers raise real concerns about the need for prevention and policy interventions. But the general pattern is encouraging, suggesting that the major declines in teenage alcohol use that have been increasingly studied in HICs may be occurring in many LMICs as well.
The growing multinational alcohol industry has expanded its markets substantially in LMICs, where alcohol was traditionally less common, and there have been increasing concerns about the impacts of the alcohol industry’s global marketing efforts on youth alcohol use.
Smith et al. data show that the large declines in teenage alcohol use seen since the early 2000s in Europe, the United States, Australia, the UK, Canada, and New Zealand are reflected in countries like Jamaica, Samoa, and Uruguay.
But the problem of youth alcohol use is not solved. The prevalence of alcohol consumption among this young population remains high in many of the countries studied, and harms from alcohol globally remain one of the major contributors to the burden of disease for young people.
Ensuring effective alcohol policies are implemented in LMICs should remain a key priority for public health. Alcohol policies are clearly an effective means for reducing alcohol use among young people, but they are operating in a complex web of cultural and social factors that need to be better understood.