Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said America has a drinking problem.

And it starts early: More and more children are beginning to drink alcohol, and at younger ages, Leavitt said at the unveiling of a federal advertising campaign to combat underage drinking.

"Over the years we have made great progress in reducing tobacco and illicit drug use among our nation's young people," the secretary said. "Underage alcohol use has been a tougher and more persistent problem."

Consider this: Nearly 11 million young people between the ages of 12 and 20 said they use alcohol, according to federal surveys. A majority of them (7.4 million) said they consumed five or more drinks on a single occasion, making them "binge" drinkers.

And the news gets worse as they become older. More than half of 15-year-olds said they have tried alcohol at least once, compared with 11 percent of 12-year-olds.

Youthful drinking is tied to violence, risky sex, poor grades and drunken driving.

The ads, geared toward parents of children ages 11 to 15, feature fresh-faced kids intoning about a future of alcoholism that awaits them within a decade of starting to drink in middle school.

The ads, urging parents to talk to their children about alcohol, will appear in newspapers and magazines, as well as on television, radio and the Internet. Leavitt said that cutting down on the supply of alcohol for children is a priority.

-- Christopher Lee