More people in the United States drink alcohol than the combined total of U.S. residents who use any drug, illicit or prescription.
Booze is America’s No. 1 vice — and has been for decades. However, recent data shows that alcohol might not hold the top spot forever.
Results from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reveal a trend among young adults. In fact, it’s a trend that has been active for nearly a decade. According to SAMHSA’s 2009 survey, 61.8 percent of people ages 18–25 reported past-month alcohol use, which is representative of Americans who regularly drank alcohol. Each year following, the percentage dropped. In 2017, 56.3 percent of Americans ages 18–25 were alcohol users. That percentage is not only the lowest in nine years but the lowest since SAMHSA started the annual survey in 2002.
More and more teenagers are also turning away from alcohol. In 2009, 14.8 percent of Americans ages 12–17 reported past-month alcohol use. In 2016, that number was down to 9.2 percent. For adults ages 26 and older, the percentages have been stagnant since 2008.
What attributes to alcohol use dropping in America? And which substance, or substances, are primarily people turning to in its place?
Alcohol Use By The Numbers
For all Americans ages 12 and older, alcohol use hasn’t decreased or increased consistently in the last decade. Approximately 140.6 million people in the country reported past-month alcohol use in 2017. That number is massive, especially compared to the number of people who use any other potentially addictive or dangerous substance. However, the number of people who used alcohol was even larger just a few years ago.
The highest percentage of alcohol use since the SAMHSA survey started was in 2014, when 52.7 percent of Americans reported past-month use of the substance. That number has dropped to 51.7 percent in 2017, particularly due to the decreased use among Americans ages 12–25.
What explains the drop? New technological advancements provide younger Americans with alcohol-free socializing.
According to Katherine Keyes, a Columbia University professor of epidemiology quoted in a Washington Post article, the most popular theory is that young people have different social lives today. The rise of smartphones, social media and online video gaming mean Americans can find social interaction without actually having a face-to-face interaction. Not having to leave the house means fewer social opportunities to drink with other people, either at a bar or house party.
However, Keyes believes there is another cause.
According to the SAMHSA survey, cigarette use among Americans dropped from 63.4 percent in 2002 to 57.1 percent in 2017. Among kids ages 12–17, the percentage dropped from 31.8 percent in 2002 to 12.2 in 2017. Among adults ages 18–25, the percentage dropped from 51.8 in 2002 to 38.4 in 2017.
Keyes calls cigarettes the first thing many teenagers will try and a lead-in to alcohol use. So the decline of cigarette use among young people has led to fewer teens and young adults following up with alcohol.
Just because fewer young Americans are drinking alcohol than years past doesn’t mean the country is moving toward a substance-free era.
Out With the Booze, In With the Weed
Marijuana is legal for recreational use in numerous U.S. states and for medical use in even more. However, using the drug remains illegal under federal law.
Despite marijuana being illegal, the drug is the second most popular substance in the U.S. Around 26 million Americans ages 12 and up reported past-month use of marijuana in 2017. That equals 9.6 percent of the population, close to a 66 percent increase from the 5.8 percent in 2007.
The increase is reflected in the use of the drug among specific age groups. In 2008, 16.6 percent of Americans ages 18–25 reported using marijuana. In 2017, the number was 22.1 percent. For Americans ages 26 and older, use of the drug has doubled in the last 11 years, from 3.9 percent in 2007 to 7.9 percent in 2017.
Why is marijuana use on the rise in America? There has been a change in public perception of the drug. The push for national legalization continues, and many people believe marijuana is safer to use than alcohol. According to a report from NBC News, that’s one reason why baby boomers have started using marijuana more in recent years. According to the SAMHSA survey results, the percentage of Americans age 26 and older are using marijuana for the first time has increased each year since 2009.
Additionally, the drug has been linked to the treatment of anxiety disorders, which continue to rise in prevalence in the U.S. The connection between anxiety and smoking marijuana as a form of self-medication could explain the uptick in young adults using the drug. According to the SAMHSA survey, 25.8 percent of Americans ages 18–25 reported having a mental illness in 2017. That’s the largest percentage of any age group and a figure that has increased by around 40 percent since 2011.
Benefits of Not Drinking
There are many positive effects that could come from fewer Americans drinking alcohol. There might be fewer alcohol-related car accidents, legal issues that stem from alcohol use and deaths related to extreme alcohol consumption. One result of the revolt against drinking any amount of alcohol is that severe consumption of the substance is also down. The number of people with an alcohol use disorder is already down, from 7.5 percent in 2009 to 5.3 percent in 2017. The dip is reflected in every age group, too:
- From 17.4 percent in 2008 to 10 percent in 2017 for 18–25 year olds
- From 5.4 percent in 2007 to 1.8 percent in 2017 for 12–17 year olds
- From 6.3 percent in 2009 to 5 percent in 2017 for adults ages 26 and older
However, millions of Americans still struggle with an addiction to alcohol — and they need help. Whether they are teenagers, young adults or baby boomers, anyone who regularly consumes the substance is at risk of developing a dependence. If someone you know has shown signs of regular alcohol use, become proactive in looking for treatment options. There are local, state and national facilities that specialize in rehabilitation from alcohol addiction.
Even if someone does not rely on alcohol, they could be dependent on another substance. Marijuana can be addictive and lead to the use of other dangerous drugs. If someone you know has a marijuana use disorder, call The Recovery Village to learn how this drug can be harmful and which treatment options are available. Taking substance use seriously can help continue the promising trends related to alcohol use — and stall the rise of marijuana use — in America.