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Teen Survey: What's the Responsible Age for Smoking, Drinking, Sex?

by Darren K. Carlson, Government and Politics Editor

Forty-one percent say people ready to drink at an age younger than 21

Second in a two-part series on teens and responsibility

Millions are spent each year to warn American teens about the potential risks of drinking alcohol, smoking, and being sexually active. These issues are also top-of-mind worries for countless parents. At what age do teens think they are capable of engaging in these activities responsibly? According to a recent Gallup Youth Survey*, most teens seem to be taking a few of these warnings to heart.

Lighting Up

For years, tobacco companies have been criticized for marketing their products to young people, and the law has been cracking down on businesses that sell cigarettes to those under 18. So, if 18 is the legal age at which people can buy cigarettes -- at what age do teens think young people are responsible enough to smoke? Most teens agree that the law is appropriate; just 9% give an age of 17 or younger. Forty percent say young people are ready at 18. Another 7% say young people aren't ready until age 19 or 20, and nearly a quarter (23%) say 21 is the appropriate age. Sixteen percent suggest an age older than 21, and 4% say "never."

Think Before You Drink

Like tobacco, there is a clear-cut age for the legal consumption of alcohol -- 21. But anyone who has been to an unsupervised high school or college party knows underage drinking is rampant, and many teens feel young people are responsible enough to drink before reaching 21. Forty-seven percent of teens say young people are responsible enough to drink at 21, but nearly as many, 41%, give an age under 21. Eleven percent of teens say young people have to pass age 21 to be responsible enough to drink.


The age of consent --the legal age at which people can give informed consent to have sex -- varies from state to state, but is usually between 16 and 18. A majority of teens think young people are responsible enough to have sex at age 18 or younger.

Thirty-one percent of teens indicate an age of 17 or younger as appropriate for sexual activity, while 31% say 18 is the right age. Nine percent of teens say young people become responsible enough to have sex when they turn 19 or 20, while more than a quarter (27%) of teens say 21 or older.

*These results are based on mail and Web surveys with a randomly selected national sample of 549 teenagers in the Gallup Poll Panel of households, aged 13 to 17, conducted April 15 to May 22, 2005. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±5 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.


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