NEW YORK, Feb. 25 (UPI) -- Teens and adults who drink heavily account for more than half of all alcohol consumption in the United States, with teens alone accounting for nearly 20 percent, even though they're not legally allowed to drink, a study released Tuesday said.
"One half of the alcohol consumed in this country (consists of) underage and excessive adult drinking," the study's lead author, Susan Foster from Columbia University's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse or CASA, told United Press International.
Using three national surveys involving more than 217,000 people age 12 or older, Foster and other researchers, including CASA President Joseph Califano, estimated underage drinking and adult excessive drinking combined made up 50.1 percent of all the alcohol consumed in 1999. The legal drinking age in the United States is 21.
The alcohol industry disputed the findings and pointed out that a group led by Califano was forced to retract the results of a similar study about underage drinking released last year.
In that study, Califano's group reported underage drinkers drank 25 percent of the total volume of alcohol consumed in the United States. It later turned out the figure was based on an inaccurate estimate and the level was closer to 11 percent, according to statistics from the federal government.
The new study, which appears in the Feb. 26 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, estimates underage drinkers consumed nearly 20 percent of the alcohol consumed in 1999. This amounted to $22.5 billion or about 19 percent of the $116.2 billion consumers spent on beer, liquor and wine.
The study defined excessive drinkers as adults who consumed more than two drinks a day. Such adults consumed 30 percent of the total volume of alcohol in 1999. This amounted to $34.4 billion of the total alcohol sales or nearly 30 percent.
"The implications of this analysis are that the alcohol industry has an interest in underage and excessive adult drinking," Foster said. "We simply can't rely on industry itself to curb underage and adult excessive drinking," she said.
Underage drinking is "a big public health problem," Foster said, noting that underage drinking increases the chances of homicide, suicide, brain damage, pregnancy and HIV infection.
She called for advertising and education campaigns similar to those aimed at reducing smoking and illegal drug use.
Other efforts could include raising taxes on alcoholic beverages, stepping up enforcement of existing drinking laws, and encouraging or requiring the alcohol industry to exercise restraint in its ad practices, particularly in "those ads that have high youth appeal," Foster said.
Parents also should play a major role in efforts to curb underage drinking, she said.
"These findings should cause alarm for parents" because "there's a clear link between underage and adult excessive drinking," Foster said. Kids who start drinking before they are 21 are twice as likely to develop alcohol problems and those who start before they are 15 are four times as likely, she said.
Parents should spend more time with their children, know who their friends are and send clear messages against alcohol and drug abuse, Foster recommended.
"This is just another attempt by CASA to inflate figures to get another headline," Lisa Hawkins, spokeswoman for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade group representing liquor manufacturers, told UPI.
"They have a long history of playing loose with figures to drive their own agenda," Hawkins said, referring to last year's discrepancy.
In another incident in 1994, then Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala called a CASA study seriously flawed and misleading, Hawkins said.
The current CASA results seem to conflict with another SAMHSA study from 2000 that found rates of youth who had used alcohol in the previous month dropped significantly in recent years -- going from 41 percent in 1985 to 19 percent in 1998. Rates for binge drinking among teens also declined, going from 22 percent to 8 percent during that same period.
"Nobody wants underage drinking and we all fight very hard to stop it but we're not going to get anywhere if we inflate these figures," Hawkins said.
Dr. Ting-Kai Li, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Bethesda, Md., wrote an accompanying editorial to the article, but he told UPI he could not comment on the accuracy of CASA's numbers because the institute has not conducted independent research.
Whatever the level of underage drinking, it is clear "this is an important problem that we need to pay attention to," Li said. Solutions include the involvement of parents and education, he said. "It has to be a multi-pronged attack on a very complex behavioral problem," he said. "There is no silver bullet."
Hawkins also faulted the CASA researchers for defining an adult excessive drinker as someone who has more than two drinks per day, explaining that federal guidelines specify this level of drinking could produce some health benefits. Hawkins pointed that the guidelines do not classify more than two drinks per day as excessive.
Li said the level at which a person might be suspected of having an alcohol disorder is more than four drinks per day for men and more than three drinks per day for women.
Regarding allegations the alcohol industry puts out ads aimed at youth, Hawkins said: "That's flat out wrong."
She added, "We don't want underage drinkers as our customers" and noted that alcohol manufacturers abide by a voluntary code that says "advertising is to be responsible, tasteful and directed to adults."
In addition, Hawkins said, CASA's own analysis concluded "the primary influences over a youth's decision to drink is parents and peers and not advertising."
(Reported by Steve Mitchell, UPI Medical Correspondent, in Washington)