Two out of three youth drink alcohol before they graduate secondary school in the United States (US). Higher alcohol consumption as an adolescent is associated with alcohol problems in adult life, including dependence.

This isn’t a rite of passage; it’s big business.

Counting dollars and drinks from underage alcohol consumption

In the first study of its kind in nearly two decades in the US, we combined existing survey and industry data to estimate how much alcohol underage youth drink and the revenues from these drinks that accrue to the industry. The survey data we used asked 1,000+ underage drinkers about 898 branded products. Rather than the usual “beer, wine, or spirits” estimates, these unique data allowed us to estimate market share at the company and product level. When combined with prices, we could estimate industry revenues from underage drinking.

We found youth under the legal drinking age (21 years) drank 11.4 billion alcoholic drinks in 2016. The tab from this alcohol was also sizable at $17.5 billion, 7.4% of the revenues that year.

*Underage youth defined as persons aged 12-20 years.

Who “wins” from underage drinking?

After pouring over websites and annual reports to identify brand ownership, we attributed the $17.5 billion in revenues to specific companies. Unsurprisingly, revenues from underage consumption concentrated among a few. Three accounted for nearly half (44.7%) of the alcohol young people drank. Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev) received the most revenues – $2.2 billion – owing to underage favorites such as Bud Light, Budweiser, and Corona Extra. Diageo, producer of Smirnoff Ice, Smirnoff Vodka, and Captain Morgan Rum, earned $2.0 billion, and MillerCoors, maker of Coors Light, made $1.1 billion.

The alcohol industry’s conflict of interest with preventing underage drinking

Alcohol companies and their trade associations state alcoholic beverages are intended for adults of legal purchase age and that they are committed to reducing underage drinking. When asked to comment on our research, they highlighted their financial commitment to preventing underage drinking. There is clearly some “head in the sand” behavior here. AB InBev noted they invested part of $1 billion to prevent underage drinking over the past 29 years. This $35 million average annual investment sounds impressive until it is compared to the $2.2 billion in annual revenues from said behavior. Walking away from significant revenues is counterintuitive to a private business model. Research also consistently finds the industry invests in the least effective interventions to reduce consumption and harm; rather, their interventions serve to reframe issues with their agenda.

What does this mean for the field?

Our study paints a more detailed picture about why the industry’s prevention efforts are ineffective: The billions in revenues that accrue from underage drinking every year. We urge the field to be vigilant in maintaining a separation between prevention funding and the alcohol industry. We also encourage collection of brand-specific data to become more commonplace to capture industry’s impact globally. These actions will help continue to shift the responsibility of alcohol’s harms back to the industry that creates the product to ensure they contribute their fair share.

Written by Dr Pamela Trangenstein, Alcohol Research Group and Dr Raimee Eck, Maryland Public Health Association

All IAS Blogposts are published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Alcohol Studies.