Utah underage drinking declines to record low

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) A hallway at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray shows the dangers of underage drinking when Murray City launched a citywide initiative about the negative consequences of underage drinking in March 2016.

While overall alcohol sales and consumption in Utah continue to rise at a record pace, a new statewide report shows that underage drinking is on a record decline.

The percentage of kids in Utah who say they have consumed alcohol in the past 30 days dropped to 5.5% in 2019. It the lowest rate ever and down from 6.7% in 2017, according to the Student Health and Risk Prevention (SHARP) survey.

The questionnaire is given every two years to students in sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grades to measure underage drinking rates in Utah. The 2019 sample included 86,000 youngsters.

Students across all grades who said they had consumed alcohol during their lifetime also hit an all-time low of 16.7%, “a statistically significant decrease” from 18.1% in 2017, according the survey, presented Tuesday to to the state liquor commission.

This year’s 10th and 12 grade lifetime drinking measures, the study shows, “represent the lowest rates" since the state has conducted the study.

The only grade showing any increase in lifetime use was eighth grade, which saw a nominal bump from 12.5% to 12.8%

While Utah always has maintained one of the lowest youth alcohol use rates in the nation, “we’re glad to see these decreases,” said Doug Murakami, director of Parents Empowered, the alcohol education program for the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

Overall, underage drinking numbers have been falling for some 14 years, Murakami said. From 2005 to 2019, lifetime alcohol use has decreased 40%; 30-day use has dropped 54% and binge drinking has been reduced by 47%.

The decline in teen drinking has occurred at the same time alcohol sales and consumption have soared among Utahns 21 and older. Utah liquor sales have been climbing by 6% to 7% annually for several years. In fiscal 2018-19, sales reached $479.32 million, a 5.65% jump from the previous year.

The DABC’s Parents Empowered program creates statewide campaigns — including television commercials, billboards, radio spots and messages in liquor stores — to encourage parents to take a more active role in preventing underage drinking.

Under state law, 6% of the total gross revenue from the sales of wine, beer and liquor is used to pay for the media and education campaigns. Since that provision was passed, the Parents Empowered budget has grown steadily — from $1.7 million to about $2.53 million in 2019

DABC Commissioner Steve Bateman wondered if the decrease in underage drinking was due to education or whether e-cigarettes and marijuana have become the substance of choice for today’s youths.

[Read more: Are e-cigarettes wiping out teen smoking?]

Over time habits have changed, said Murakami, noting that at one time alcohol was more popular, but now vaping and marijuana top the list of teenage temptations.

While statewide numbers for binge drinking — consuming five or more drinks in a row — also dipped from 4.3% to 4%, there remain pockets of the state where heavy alcohol use is showing an uptick, most notably in sixth and eighth grades.

“Utah kids are drinking to get drunk,” the study says, “consuming more alcohol in one sitting than previous generations, and it is all starting as early as elementary school.”

Overall, the state “is doing a good job” preventing underage drinking, Murakami told the commission, “but there are areas in the state we still need to work on.”

Utah communities with underage drinking rates higher than the state average include the urban areas of Salt Lake and Weber counties, the rural Four Corners region and parts of Summit County, where the income level is among Utah’s highest.

“It’s really across the board,” Murakami said. “It’s something that can affect anyone.”