WASHINGTON (AP) _ Nearly a third of high school students say they binge drink at least once a month, according to a report that says underage drinkers now account for 25 percent of the alcohol consumed in this country.
``Underage drinking has reached epidemic proportions in America,'' said Joseph Califano Jr., president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, which issued the report Tuesday.
The report, which analyzes two years' research, ``is a clarion call for national mobilization to curb underage drinking,'' said Califano, a former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.
Some of the report's findings:
_Eighty-seven percent of adults who drink had their first drink before age 21.
_The gender gap for drinking is disappearing. Female ninth-graders were just as likely to be drinkers as male ninth-graders.
_Eighty-one percent of high school students have consumed alcohol, compared with 70 percent who have smoked cigarettes and 47 percent who have used marijuana.
_Most teens who experiment with alcohol continue using it. Among high school seniors who had tried alcohol, 91.3 percent still were drinking in the 12th grade.
The percentage of teens who drink on binges _ 31 percent among high school students _ was obtained by using the Youth Risk Behavior Survey of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, published in 2000. The conclusion that underage drinkers accounted for 25 percent of alcohol consumption was based on the 1998 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. The number of drinks consumed by underage drinkers in a month was divided by the total number of drinks in the same period for the sample.
``Alcohol is far and away the top drug of abuse for American kids,'' said Susan Foster, the center's vice president and director of policy research and analysis. ``The college binge-drinking problem starts with children and teens, and that's where our prevention and education efforts must be focused.''
A spokesman for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States called the group's analysis ``flat-out wrong.''
``Under its flawed interpretation, each American teen-ager and young adult who illegally drinks alcohol would have to consume 120 drinks per month,'' to make up the 25 percent consumption figure, said spokesman Frank Coleman.
Phil Lynch, a spokesman for Brown-Forman Corp., whose products include Jack Daniel's Tennessee whiskey, said, ``It looks like Mr. Califano and CASA have adopted Enron's accounting practices.''
Binge drinking often is described as four drinks within an hour for a female or five drinks in an hour for a male. According to an American Medical Association survey last year, binge drinking is among parents' top worries. Around 44 percent of college students admit to binge drinking, and nearly a fourth of those binge frequently.
Underage drinking crosses social dynamics as well. President Bush's twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, have gotten in trouble for underage drinking.
Too often, teens have easy access to alcohol, the report says. One-third of sixth- and ninth-graders get alcohol from their own homes, and children cite other people's homes as the most common setting for drinking.
The report also complains that the entertainment industry has glamorized alcohol and rarely shows its ill effects. It noted that NBC television recently announced it would start accepting commercials for distilled beverages, breaking a longtime tradition of refusing such ads.
The center advises parents to discuss the consequences of underage drinking with children but also recommends that policy-makers step up enforcement of underage drinking laws and finance additional treatment programs for adolescents. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy also should be broadened to include alcohol in its media campaigns and other activities, the report said.