OBJECTIVES: This study explored whether college students who were first intoxicated by alcohol at ages younger than 19 are more likely to become alcohol dependent and frequent heavy drinkers, drive after drinking, ride with intoxicated drivers and be injured after drinking. It also investigated whether these results occur because these students believe they can drink more and still drive legally and safely.
METHOD: In 1999, 14,138 of 23,751 full-time 4-year students from a random sample of 119 college and universities nationwide completed self-administered questionnaires (response rate: 60%). This analysis focused on 12,550 who were aged 19 or older. Respondents were asked the age at which they first got drunk, as well as questions about recent alcohol-related behaviors and consequences.
RESULTS: Compared with respondents first drunk at age 19 or older, those first drunk prior to age 19 were significantly more likely to be alcohol dependent and frequent heavy drinkers, to report driving after any drinking, driving after five or more drinks, riding with a driver who was high or drunk and, after drinking, sustaining injuries that required medical attention. Respondents first intoxicated at younger ages believed they could consume more drinks and still drive safely and legally; this contributed to their greater likelihood of driving after drinking and riding with high or drunk drivers.
CONCLUSIONS: Educational, clinical, environmental and legal interventions are needed to delay age of first intoxication and to correct misperceptions among adolescents first drunk at an early age about how much they can drink and still drive safely and legally.