WASHINGTON—Underage drinking costs Americans $62 billion every year in injuries, deaths and lost work time, according to a tally released Thursday. That's more than three times what the federal government had spent on relief for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita by mid-June.
The biggest costs are those associated with alcohol-fueled rapes, murders, assaults and other violent crimes committed by underage people who have been drinking, which add up to $34.7 billion. The second biggest cost was drunken-driving accidents, totaling $13.5 billion. Researchers took into account immediate costs, such as hospital bills, and long-term damage, such as lost work hours and lowered quality of life.
Dividing the total cost of teen drinking by the estimated number of teen drinkers, the study, from the nonprofit research group Pacific Institute of Research and Evaluation, estimates that every underage drinker costs society an average of $4,680 a year. That's the $62 billion total divided by the estimated number of drinkers under 21.
"Costs are a way of capturing the health and safety implications that people can understand better sometimes than just the number of deaths and injuries," said Dr. Ted Miller, one of the study's lead researchers.
After car crashes and violent crime, the next biggest estimated costs of teen drinking were those associated with high-risk sex (nearly $5 billion), property crime ($3 billion) and addiction treatment programs (nearly $2 billion.)
The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, an industry trade group, said it shares Miller's concerns. "Distillers believe that any amount of underage drinking is too much and creates societal harm," said council President Peter Cressy. "The distillers do not want anyone underage as consumers and support effective measures to fight this complex societal problem."
Miller said the problem isn't getting better and that the current findings track an analysis produced in 1999.
He advocates more federal spending to curb underage drinking.
"Alcohol kills four times the number of kids that illegal drugs do," he said. "We're not spending much at all on this problem, despite the size of it."
Miller would put the money into tougher enforcement of underage drinking laws, plus more "host laws" targeting parents who allow underage kids to drink in their homes and harder-to-forge identification cards.
Miller also noted that when underage drinkers imbibe, they drink more than adults—4.3 drinks per session vs. 2.9. Moreover, Miller said, kids who start drinking earlier are more likely to become alcoholics later in life.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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