How Teens Drink

teens drinking, underage drinking, youth drinking, youth drug use, alcohol use declining among teens

Before the energy drink slash cocktail and butt-chugging, there was “The Watermelon Crawl” and “Mr. Boston’s.”

As an adolescent, I considered myself to be fairly straight-laced. The son of an authoritarian, principal father and schoolteacher mother, I was obedient and possessed very few rebellious bones in my body. I read my Bible, played sports, and got good grades in school. Hell, I was literally a boy scout.

And when it came to drugs and alcohol I was comically naïve. In seventh grade Biology I recall watching a drug propaganda awareness film so fantastical it made Half Baked seem like a documentary. In the video, a 12-year old boy smokes a joint in his bathroom and begins violently coughing. Seconds later he clutches his chest and slumps over dead from (I shit you, not) a heart attack. Well, that’s all I needed to see. NO WEED SMOKING FOR ME!

Without any older siblings around, I also had no one to corrupt me by introducing me to alcohol. That is, until my senior year of high school.

I was 17 years old and it was Labor Day weekend, which meant my friend Tracy’s parents would be out of town. During our fourth period Physics class, she asked if my best friend Bryan and I wanted to come over and drink. It occurred to me then that no one had ever asked me that. I said, “Sure.”

“Do you like clear or dark liquor?” Tracy asked.

“Umm … I dunno.”

“Vodka. You like vodka. We’re getting Mr. Boston’s. It’ll be ten bucks for a fifth.”

I gave her the money and I didn’t even pretend to know how much liquor that was.

I arrived at Tracy’s later that evening, along with my girlfriend, Jessica. Before we began drinking, a few of us sat around for a while watching TV and then Jessica and I snuck off to make out in Tracy’s bedroom. After some amorous, PG-13 over-the-clothes action, I walked Jessica outside to my truck so I could drop her off at her parent’s house. She was younger and had a stricter curfew than the rest of us.

When we pulled into her own driveway, she exited the truck with a bit of trepidation. She wasn’t exactly thrilled to leave me. Knowing that I wasn’t a drinker, she was afraid of how alcohol would affect the straight edge boyfriend she’d signed up for. I assured her I’d be on my best behavior and headed back to the party. Within the next three months Jessica and I would break up.

I got back to Tracy’s and was handed a Sprite can and a fifth of Mr. Boston’s Vodka. It came in an elegant plastic bottle with two black eagles adorning on the label. I took my first pull from the bottle and was immediately confused. I didn’t know if I should be drinking it or using it to disinfect an open wound.

But I didn’t let little things like taste or a burning esophagus stop me. Drinking didn’t feel good, but I felt good, drinking.

However, there were a few side effects.

Why do I have to pee so much? I asked myself after my third trip to the bathroom in thirty minutes. In addition to my overly active bladder, I discovered that after four drinks everything I say is charming. And my propensity for absentmindedness manifested itself later when I got the munchies and decided to microwave Tracy’s parents’ leftovers. After about thirty seconds of standing by the microwave, I noticed sparks flying from the dish, as if someone had set off a pack of Black Cat firecrackers. That’s because I’d left the fork on the plate and apparently electromagnetic radiation does not mix well with silverware.

The rest of the night involved nursing a friend while he puked out in the front yard and carrying a passed-out Bryan over to a couch, Notebook-style.

I’d called my parents earlier to let them know that I’d be staying the night at Bryan’s house. Bryan, for his part, told his parents that he would be staying at our friend John’s. And what John told his parents, I don’t know.

That night would be the blueprint for the remainder of our senior year. And our taste in alcohol didn’t get any better. As most teens can attest, taste is not the premium. Price (the cheaper the better) and availability (“Whose big brother can swing by ABC Liquors?”) are the main concerns. That meant chugging obnoxious amounts of Boone’s Farm, Mad Dog 20/20, and Smirnoff Ice (!). It meant mixing Gatorade and Everclear so we could get smashed twice as fast. And it meant emptying an entire bottle of 190-proof Golden Grain Alcohol into a giant watermelon to mitigate the effects of drinking what is essentially gasoline.

In my experience, teen drinking in America is a crude ritual. It’s a rite of passage that revolves around bingeing; dangerously pushing the limits of health just to see where you can end up, sometimes with tragic results. How many shots can you do? How much beer can you funnel? How fast can you chug?

Yet according to the Century Council, drinking among both teens and college students has actually been on a twenty-year decline. You probably wouldn’t guess that from watching the news. Kids today, with their Four Lokos and butt-chugging and whatnot.

Since my teen years I’ve become more responsible with my drinking. I can’t put them back at nearly the same rate as when I was a kid. That’s because years later, I would discover the most powerful binge-drinking deterrent there is: Hangovers.


Read more in Teenage Kicks on The Good Life.

Image credit: stopalcoholdeaths/Flickr

About Clyde McGrady

Clyde is only one of three freelance writers living in Brooklyn. He enjoys sports and fried foods. He tweets at @CAMcGrady and tumbls at


  1. Of course drinking alcohol among teens is declining. Prescription and street drugs took its place. Why? because Oxycotin, Xanax, Valium, Meth, Heroin etc…. are so much easier to obtain.

  2. Tom Brechlin says:

    You’re lucky you weren’t one of the 4700 …. I read this to be what we call glorifying. There may be a decline but ….

    The 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey6 found that among high school students, during the past 30 days

    •39% drank some amount of alcohol.
    •22% binge drank.
    •8% drove after drinking alcohol.
    •24% rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol.
    Other national surveys

    •In 2011 the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that 25% of youth aged 12 to 20 years drink alcohol and 16% reported binge drinking.7
    •In 2011, the Monitoring the Future Survey reported that 33% of 8th graders and 70% of 12th graders had tried alcohol, and 13% of 8th graders and 40% of 12th graders drank during the past month.8

    • Didn’t mean it as glorification. More as a window into a group of teenagers’ ridiculous behavior. Also, not denying that alcohol abuse among youth is no longer a problem, just that for some reason it is actually declining.

  3. trey1963 says:

    By the time we were 12, almost everyone knew a liquor store or 2 that would sell to anyone with cash. The most likely supplier would card us and his rule was no hard liquor under 15yrs…..after that it was limited to a fifth apiece….. Tango, night train and thunderbird till you were old enough to graduate to Jack. That was when we were flush…..Weed was a cheaper more available high that mellowed most of our nights, mesc, acid etc…..was for summers and weekends. Finding a peer that didn’t drink/smoke was extremely rare…kind of like a unicorn. Early 70’s south-west Queens, NYC. Drugs and drinking is less common now, yet still widely available as per my HS aged daughter.

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