Early Onset of Drinking:
What Research Says &
What Anti-Alcohol Activists Say It Says
by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) accurately summarizes the research on the relationship between the onset of drinking at an early age and alcohol dependence later in life.
People who begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence at some time in their lives compared with those who have their first drink at age 20 or older (25). It is not clear whether starting to drink at an early age actually causes alcoholism or whether it simply indicates an existing vulnerability to alcohol use disorders (26). For example, both early drinking and alcoholism have been linked to personality characteristics such as strong tendencies to act impulsively and to seek out new experiences and sensations (27). Some evidence indicates that genetic factors may contribute to the relationship between early drinking and subsequent alcoholism (28,29). 1 (Emphasis added)
Anti-alcohol activists tend to refer to the relationship (early age of first drink associated with greater risk of dependence later in life) found in some research and say this means that if we keep young people from drinking until age 20 or older, they will be less likely to become alcohol dependent. 2
The research says no such thing. It only states a relationship found in limited research, which may or may not be correct. But even if the relationship really does exist, it doesn’t mean that keeping young people from drinking will reduce their risk of alcohol dependence.
Activists conveniently ignore NIAAA’s very important suggestion, based on research evidence, that early age of first drink may well not be the cause of subsequent dependence. Both early onset of drinking and alcohol dependence may be caused by underlying personality characteristics such as impulsivity or sensation seeking, or from genetic factors.
For example, sensation-seeking personalities may drink at an early age, engage in unprotected sex, gamble, drive recklessly, abuse alcohol, etc. Preventing them from engaging in any one of these behaviors would have absolutely no effect on any of the others. Similarly, preventing early drinking would have no effect whatsoever on a person’s genetic makeup, which may be the cause of alcohol dependence. 3
Does early onset of drinking increase the risk of alcohol dependence? Probably not. Those groups and societies in which young people are introduced to the consumption of alcohol at an early age (for example, Jews, Italians, Greeks, Spaniards, and Portuguese) tend to have low rates of alcohol dependence and fewer alcohol-related problems.
Needless to say, alcohol activists never mention the research evidence that those who begin drinking later than most of their peers are also more likely to experience drinking and alcohol-related problems. That wouldn’t support their agenda.
Filed Under: Misinformation