Negative affect is consistently associated with pathological aspects of alcohol use. Priming of motivation for alcohol by negative affect cues may contribute to this relationship. This study sought to determine whether: (a) exposure to negative affect words primes actual drinking behavior; (b) this effect is related to severity of alcohol problems; and (c) these effects are moderated by gender and anxiety sensitivity. Prime words (negative, positive, neutral) were administered using a synonym generation task. Primed drinking behavior was measured in a taste-test procedure, using placebo beer. Drinking scores were significantly greater in the negative affect condition than in the other two conditions, which did not differ from each other. Problem drinking severity directly predicted priming effects of negative affect words but was unrelated to drinking in the other two word prime conditions. Anxiety sensitivity was unrelated to drinking in any condition. Even unobtrusive exposure to negative affect cues can prime drinking behavior in young drinkers, and this effect is tied to the severity of alcohol problems.