The younger a teenager is when they have their first alcoholic drink, the bigger the problems with drink abuse later, a new report today claims.
These findings appear to shatter the commonly held belief among some parents that introducing alcohol at an early age – such as a small glass of wine with a meal at the age of 14 or 15 – can help to stave off binge-drinking behaviour when full adolescence strikes.
The study, from Yale University, suggests instead that the earlier one drinks, the “greater the chances of later alcohol-related problems”.
More than 1,000 college students were surveyed, and asked about their first introduction to drinking and their later experiences.
Co-author Meghan Rabbitt Morean, a postdoctoral fellow in psychiatry, said: “Beginning to use alcohol at an earlier age was associated with heavier drinking and the experience of more negative consequences during senior year of college.
"For example, an adolescent who consumed his first drink at age 15 was at greater risk for heavy drinking and problems than an adolescent who took his first drink at age 17.”
The researchers also found that the earlier a teenager got drunk posed an even greater risk for heavy drinking problems later. Morean added: “An adolescent who took his first drink at age 15 and also drank to intoxication at age 15 was at greater risk for heavy drinking and problems than an adolescent who had his first drink at age 15 and did not drink to the point of intoxication until he was 17." Medical evidence suggests that beginning to drink at an early age is associated with immediate health problems, from “compromised brain development and liver damage during adolescence” to risky sexual behaviour, poor performance in school and the use of illegal drugs such as marijuana and cocaine.
The study appears to give credence to US legislation that bans young people from drinking until they are 21 – although Morean conceded that setting legal limits did not necessarily stave off early drinking.
The minimum age for buying alcohol in the UK is 18, although a child can drink between the age of 5 and 17 at home with a guardian's permission.
In 2009, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer warned that children under 15 should not drink alcohol and claimed that as many as a third of 11 to 15-year-olds on a typical weekend drank.
Morean said: "The best way to prevent heavy drinking and the experience of alcohol-related problems is to prevent alcohol use.
"Therefore, our first recommendation would be to delay the onset of any alcohol use as long as possible. However, despite valiant prevention efforts, the average American adolescent has his or her first alcoholic drink between the ages of 14 and 15 years."
She and co-author Harriet de Wit, a professor of neuroscience, believe that full and frank discussion with young people about drinking and its dangers is the only way to limit overindulgence.
"It is important to speak to children and adolescents openly about the dangers of heavy drinking and provide them with correct information, for example, 'how many drinks does an average male/female need to drink to exceed the legal level for intoxication?" said Morean.
They also recommend better alcohol prevention and intervention efforts to target younger teenagers who begin drinking in high school, or secondary school.
The study did find that other factors played a part, such as an impulsive personality and a family history of alcoholism.