Binge Drinking Among NYC Teens Associated with Violence, Drug Use and Unsafe Sex

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In “Rebel without a Cause,” James Dean’s father impotently warns the high-schooler to stay away from gatherings where teens imbibe alcohol.

“You know what kind of drunken brawls those kind of parties turn into,” he says. “It's not a place for kids.”

New figures from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found that teenagers who drink are more likely to be involved in violence, serious narcotic drug use and unsafe sexual practices.

Both occasional and binge drinking occur at lower rates in the city than in the rest of country, and rates are declining both locally and nationally. But Dr. Hillary Kunins said the latest research suggests many troubling associations among adolescents who drink.

“We are pleased our rates are lower than the rest of the country,” said Kunins, the assistant commissioner in the Department's Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Use - Prevention, Care and Treatment, “but nonetheless we remain concerned about the pattern of drinking, especially with binge drinking.”

The latest statistics come in a public health briefing for doctors obtained by WNYC. They’re based on a national survey of high school students that local health officials get from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Locally, almost 12,000 youths participated. The survey defines occasional drinkers as having had one drink in the prior month and binge drinkers as having at least five drinks in a row once in the prior month.

Some of the more interesting findings:

  • 33 percent of girls and 28 percent of boys described themselves as occasional drinkers. Within this group, 47 percent of boys and 41 percent of girls said they binge drink.
  • Demographically, only 14 percent of Asian youths said they occasionally drink, while 29 percent of African-Americans, 36percent of Hispanics and 40 percent of whites said they do.
  • Three percent of non-drinkers said they were threatened or injured with a weapon on school property in the past year, but seven percent of occasional drinkers and 17 percent of binge drinkers say that’s happened. More than half of binge drinkers said they were in fights (53 percent), as did more than a third of occasional drinkers (35 percent) and about a fifth of non drinkers (20 percent).
  • One percent or less of non-drinking teens had tried serious narcotic drugs. Percentages climbed a bit among occasional drinkers, but among binge drinkers, they skyrocketed: about 11 percent had tried heroin and methamphetamines, 17 percent had tried cocaine and 20% had tried ecstasy.

The survey does not answer where teenagers are getting alcoholic beverages – though Kunins said she would like to see that question in future surveys. And while there are ongoing efforts to coordinate educational efforts with schools and community groups and occasionally run public service advertisements, there are not any efforts to tighten enforcement.

Kunins said it’s not clear why New York City youth generally drink less than their counterparts around the country, whether you look at occasional drinkers (31 percent locally versus 39 percent nationally) or binge drinkers (13 percent versus 22 percent). She said one theory is that there are simply more things to do in the city than elsewhere, but there simply isn't data on this.

In the end, Kunins said, it’s important to realize that drinkers actually are in the minority among youth, because there’s often the perception that ‘everyone is doing it.’

“We want New Yorkers to know that not drinking and engaging in safer behaviors is something that lots of people do,” she said.