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Despite the fact that more adolescents use alcohol than any other drug, studies of teenage alcohol misuse are relatively rare. Those that exist frequently fail to include high school dropouts and often focus on only part of the problem, such as how much or how often the adolescent drinks. This study examines the prevalence and demographic predictors of teenage alcohol misuse in a diverse sample of 4390 high school seniors and dropouts. It focuses on three different dimensions of misuse — high-risk drinking, alcohol-related problems, and high consumption — and provides prevalence estimates by gender and race/ethnicity that are weighted to represent the original seventh grade cohort of 30 California and Oregon schools. Results show that by grade 12, nearly 70% of these teenagers have exhibited some form of alcohol misuse within the past year. Two-thirds have engaged in high-risk drinking and over 50% have experienced one or more alcohol-related problems. More-stringent estimates that require variety or persistence of risky drinking and/or alcohol-related problems still capture between 40% and 54% of this population. However, focusing solely on high consumption fails to identify as many as half of these at-risk misusers. Males and females both exhibit high rates of alcohol misuse, as do most racial ethnic groups. However, African Americans and Asians are less likely to misuse alcohol than whites and Hispanics. The results underscore the need for including different forms of alcohol misuse in prevention programs, for improving our understanding of its etiology, and for providing upper and lower bound estimates of alcohol misuse in future research.

Originally published in: Addiction, v. 91, no. 10, 1996, pp. 1489-1503.

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