When it comes to underage drinking trends, the glass is looking half empty in California, according to a report released Thursday.
In a survey by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration covering 2003 and 2004, more California teenagers said they had consumed alcoholic beverages within the previous month than said so in a 2002-2003 study.
According to the federal report, 26.3% of California teens ranging in age from 12 to 20 said they had used alcohol in the last month, a rise from the 24.7% reported in the earlier survey. Wisconsin was the only other state that found a statistically significant increase in alcohol use within this age range.
"When it comes to illicit drugs and tobacco, there are very, very strong messages that these substances are damaging yet [consuming] alcohol is almost viewed with a wink and a nod -- almost a rite of passage -- in our society," said Charles Curie, administrator at the agency.
Nationally, alcohol consumption among adolescents has stayed "stubbornly and persistently the same," Curie said. "We're not seeing any decline."
The findings are part of a nationwide survey on drug and alcohol abuse and are based on responses from approximately 62,000 young people.
The study is not without critics.
"If there's a 1% change in a survey, we don't get really excited about it," said Gregory Austin, lead researcher on the 2003-2004 California Student Survey, another recent study of drinking trends.
"Without looking at long-term results, we don't know what that means."
The California survey, compiled from data collected every two years since 1985, indicated that alcohol drinking declined markedly in seventh-, ninth- and 11th-graders in California in 2003. Austin said that had been a pattern since 2001.
The state-mandated survey used a larger sample size for the age group and offered a glimpse into which groups were most at risk. Ten percent of seventh-graders, 25% of ninth-graders and 37% of 11th-graders reported having at least one drink in the previous 30 days in the 2003 study.
Curie stood by his findings, saying they were statistically significant.
The researchers agreed that underage drinking -- whether increasing or decreasing -- is too high. Binge drinking in particular worries health experts.
"When youth do drink, they're not drinking just a beer, they're out partying and consuming a lot of alcohol," said Curie.
Sweet carbonated alcoholic drinks are popular among the high school crowd, according to a University of Michigan study. The 2004 study found that 25% of 10th-grade students had consumed these "alcopops" -- so dubbed because they are essentially soda pop with 5% to 6% alcohol content -- within the previous month.
Researchers have found that many youths don't even need fake IDs to get alcohol: Many parents are willing to provide it, or it is readily available at parties.
"It is an issue, there's no question about it," said Lee Saltz, a consultant for health education programs at Los Angeles Unified School District.
L.A. Unified health teachers educate students about the dangers of alcohol, and the district also has intervention programs for those with drinking problems.
But a push for higher test scores and good grades "has supplanted everything else in this district," said Saltz.
"Unfortunately, [alcohol prevention programs] are not fully implemented ... because the administrators have made a choice."
Underage drinking is a critical problem not just because of its immediate consequences but because it can set patterns, experts say.
A study in 1999 that analyzed responses from more than 12,000 students from 119 colleges found that those who had gotten drunk before their 19th birthday were more likely to drive drunk and become heavy drinkers later in life.
Another study found that early drinkers were also more likely to have unprotected or unplanned sex.
"Early onset of drinking and of drunkenness is a warning sign that needs some kind of intervention," said Henry Wechsler, who researches youth alcohol use at the Harvard School of Public Health.