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Spotlight on the U.S. Mexico Border: Exploring Alcohol Problems

October 2018

What effect does living on the U.S. Mexican Border have on alcohol use and problems?  Who is most affected?  What characteristics of the border area and of the population there seem to make a difference? A recently funded project at the Prevention Research Center of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation is trying to answer these questions.  Mexican American Drinking Contexts on and away from the U.S./Mexico Border, with principal investigators Raul Caetano and Patrice Vaeth, builds on their previous research on this topic. 

The border region spans 2,000 miles and is home to more than 7 million U.S. residents of predominantly Mexican-American ethnicity. Compared with other areas of the U.S., border residents have higher rates of poverty, fewer years of education, and high unemployment.i They also are at elevated risk for negative health outcomes, including tuberculosis, hepatitis A, diabetes, and liver diseaseii and are differentially affected by crime related to illegal drug trafficking.iii

The border region is distinctive socially, culturally, and with respect to alcohol consumption.  Alcohol is more easily available because the minimum legal drinking age in Mexico is 18 years compared to the minimum age in U.S. age of 21.  There are also more bars, clubs, and restaurants in the areas near the border. 

Previous research has shown that the border population is more at risk for unsafe drinking and alcohol problems.  This risk is particularly evident for young people.

  • Drinking levels are higher in U.S. border regions compared with non-border regions, regardless of ethnicity, and are particularly elevated among younger age-groups.iv
  • In non-border areas, the prevalence of alcohol problems does not differ significantly by age. However, along the border, the prevalence of alcohol problems was significantly different across age groups, with 18-29-year-old men and women having the highest prevalence.v
  • Women's drinking – on or off the U.S.-Mexico border - seems to be more affected by locality than men's drinking. This is seen most clearly among young women 18 to 29 years old, and it is associated with an increased proportion of drinkers, a higher volume of drinking, and an increased proportion of women who report binge drinking. Increased drinking in this group of younger women seems to be associated with drinking in

This new research project examines how the border environment relates to heavier and problem drinking. The research will analyze archival data collected prior to the beginning of the research study (such as hospital admissions), observations of the places where people drink, and surveys of adults 18-39 years of age living in the California/Mexico border areas of Imperial City, El Centro, Heber, and Calexico.  This survey sample will be compared to a group of age-matched Mexican Americans and non-Hispanic Whites who live away from the border, in the cities of Delano, Madera, Tulare, and Visalia, in the Central Valley of California.

The researchers plan to test several important hypotheses, including:

  • Mexican Americans in the border cities are expected show a higher rate of alcohol-related hospital discharges, motor vehicle crashes, and emergency room admissions; violent crime rates, violent assault rates, and drinking and driving arrests than Mexican Americans and non-Hispanic Whites in the Central Valley cities away from the border.
  • The cities along the border are expected to have a higher density of alcohol outlets than cities in the Central Valley.
  • Younger Mexican Americans in the border cities are expected to be more likely to drink in public venues, such as bars and clubs, than at home and with family than young Mexican American and non-Hispanic Whites in Valley cities.  Drinking in bars and clubs is also expected to lead to heavier drinking and more frequent binge drinking.
  • Rates of alcohol-related social problems (for example, with family, job, legal, sexual, aggression), as well as measures of diagnoses of alcohol use disorders, are expected to be higher among Mexican Americans in the border cities than among age matched Mexican Americans and non-Hispanic Whites in Valley cities.

To test these expectations, observations and interviews will be conducted in selected bars in the border cities, in the Valley cities and in Mexicali, BC, Mexico. The researchers expect that commercial drinking venues in Mexicali (across the border from the selected study cities on the U.S. side), will have riskier operating conditions (such as:  more patrons, more dancing, louder music, lower priced alcohol, later closing times than venues in the U.S. border towns and Central Valley towns.

We will provide updates as the research work progresses and findings are available.  Our goal is to provide information and insights that can help prevent alcohol-related problems in these areas and among vulnerable populations across the country.

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PIRE is an independent, nonprofit organization merging scientific knowledge and proven practice to create solutions that improve the health, safety and well-being of individuals, communities, and nations around the world.

The Prevention Research Center (PRC) of PIRE is one of 16 centers sponsored by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), of the National Institutes of Health, and is the only one that specializes in prevention. PRC's focus is on conducting research to better understand the social and physical environments that influence individual behavior that lead to alcohol and drug misuse.

The Resource Link for Community Action provides information and practical guidance to state and community agencies and organizations, policy makers, and members of the public who are interested in combating alcohol and other drug abuse and misuse.


If you would like more information about this topic, please call Sue Thomas at 831.429.4084 or email her at

i Gerber J. Developing the U.S.-Mexico Border Region for a Prosperous and Secure Relationship: Human and Physical Infrastructure Along the U.S. Border With Mexico. Houston: James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy of Rice University; 2009.

ii Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Morbidity Trend Tables United States: Tuberculosis Cases. Atlanta: CDC; 2008a. [Accessed May 29, 2013]. Available at:

iii Office of National Drug Control Policy. High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) Program: Report to Congress. Washington, DC: Executive Office of the President, ONDCP; 2011. [Accessed May 20, 2013]. Available at:

iv Caetano RC, Mills BA, Vaeth PAC. Alcohol consumption and binge drinking among U.S.-Mexico border and non-border Mexican Americans. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 2012;36(4):677–685. [PMC free article] [PubMed]

v Vaeth, P.A.; Caetano, R.; Mills, B.A.; Rodriguez, L.A. "Alcohol-related social problems among Mexican Americans living in U.S.-Mexico border and non-border areas," Addictive Behaviors, 37(8):998-1001, 2012. doi: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2012.04.004 PMCID: PMC3378374

vi Caetano, R.; Mills, B.; and Vaeth, P.A. "Alcohol consumption and binge drinking among U.S.-Mexico border and non-border Mexican Americans," Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 36(4):677-685, 2012. doi: 10.1111/j.1530-0277.2011.01652.x PMCID: PMC3269510