Early Onset of Drinking:
What Research Says &
What Anti-Alcohol Activists Say It Says

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.


  • 1. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Alcohol Alert, #59, April, 2003. The references cited in the NIAAA quote are: (25) Grant, B.F., and Dawson, D.A. Age of onset of alcohol use and its association with DSM–IV alcohol abuse and dependence: Results from the National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiological Survey. Journal of Substance Abuse 9:103–110, 1997. (26) Dawson, D.A. The link between family history and early onset alcoholism: Earlier initiation of drinking or more rapid development of dependence? Journal of Studies on Alcoholism 61(5): 637–646, 2000. (27) Rose, R.J. A developmental behavior–genetic perspective on alcoholism risk. Alcohol Health & Research World 22(2): 131–143, 1998. (28) Virkkunen, M., and Linnoila, M. Serotonin in early–onset alcoholism. In: Galanter, M., ed. Recent Developments in Alcoholism. Vol 13: Alcohol and Violence. New York: Plenum Press, 1997. pp. 173–189. (29) Kono, Y.; Yoneda, H.; Sakai, T.; et al. Association between early–onset alcoholism and the dopamine D2 receptor gene. American Journal of Medical Genetics (Neuropsychiatric Genetics) 74(2): 179–182, 1997.
  • 2. For example, Joseph Califano, head of the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) misleadingly asserts that “teen drinking is the number one source of adult alcoholism. Children who begin drinking before age 21 are more than twice as likely to develop alcohol-related problems. Those who begin drinking before age 15 are four times likelier to become alcoholics than those who do not drink before age 21” (Califano, Joseph. Teen Tipplers: America’s Underage Drinking Epidemic. Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) pres release, 2-26-02. Similarly, a Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) official falsely asserts that “research tells us if we can keep the kids off cigarettes and alcohol, by the time they graduate (presumably the official means from high school) there’s almost zero percent chance they will abuse any other type of drug” Schultz, Sean. Alcohol education falls to new generation. Green Bay Press-Gazette, 5-18-04.
  • 3. Federally funded research continues to seriously question whether early age of first drink has any effect upon later alcohol dependence or alcohol-related problems. McGue, M., et al. Origins and Consequences of Age at First Drink. I. Associations with Substance-Use Disorders, Disinhibitory Behavior and Psychopathology, and P3 Amplitude. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. 25(8): 1156-1165, August 2001. The authors found that “AFD (age at first drink) is not specifically associated with alcoholism but rather is correlated with a broad range of indicators of disinhibited behavior and psychopathology. Moreover, individuals who first drink at a relatively early age manifest elevated rates of disinhibitory behavior and psychopathology before they first try alcohol. Taken together, these findings suggest that the association of AFD with alcoholism reflects, at least in part, a common underlying vulnerability to disinhibitory behavior. Whether an early AFD directly influences risk of adult alcoholism remains unclear.” They also report that “problems seen in adulthood among early drinkers existed prior to their taking that first drink, which suggests that developmental processes were already disrupted prior to that first drink. Thus, an early AFD is more likely a 'symptom' of an underlying vulnerability of disinhibitory processes rather than a 'cause' of increased rates of alcoholism" (Age at First Drink: What Does It Really Mean? University of Minnesota/Virginia Commonwealth University pres release, 8-14-01).
  • Researcher Helene White explains that
    • age of onset may simply be a marker of an already existing syndrome of problem behaviors (Glantz & Leshner, 2000). Studies have consistently found that early disruptive behaviors (e.g., conduct disorder) are related to later substance use and abuse, and that the onset of disruptive behaviors often occurs prior to alcohol use initiation (e.g., Costello et al., 1999). McGue and colleagues (2001b) found that those who first started drinking before age 15 compared to those who started later were at much higher risk for developing alcohol dependence as well as other drug dependence and other externalizing disorders. They argued that all of these outcomes are manifestations of disinhibitory behavior or psychopathology, and that early onset of alcohol use may reflect a vulnerability to disinhibitory behavior. Furthermore, they found that several indicators of disinhibitory behavior actually preceded age of onset. Therefore, their findings refuted a causal path from age of onset to later alcoholism. In a subsequent study, McGue and colleagues (2001a) concluded that a common inherited vulnerability model appears to explain the association of early age of onset and later alcoholism. Prescott and Kendler (1999) also showed that the association between age of onset and later alcoholism was mediated by common genetic factors and, thus, they refuted any causal association. (White, Helene. Age at First Consumption and Future Alcohol- Related Problems. Invited Opinion. International Center for Alcohol Policies, n.d.
  • References cited by Dr. White are Costello, J., Erkanli, A., Federman, E., & Angold, A. (1999). Development of psychiatric comorbidity with substance abuse in adolescents: Effects of timing and sex. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 28, 298-311; Glantz, M.D., & Leshner, A.I. (2000) Drug abuse and developmental psychopathology. Development and Psychopathology, 12, 795-814; McGue, M., Iacono, W.G., Legrand, L.N., & Elkins, I. (2001a). Origins and consequences of age at first drink. II. Familial risk and heritability. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 25, 1166-1173; McGue, M., Iacono, W.G., Legrand, L.N., Malone, S., & Elkins, I. (2001b). Origins and consequences of age at first drink. I. Associations with substance-use disorders, disinhibitory behavior and psychopathology, and p3 amplitude. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 25, 1156-1165; and Prescott, C.A., & Kendler, K.S. (1999). Age of first drink and risk for alcoholism: A noncausal association. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 23,101-107.
  • See also, for example, Dougherty, D. M., et al. Age at First Drink Relates to Behavioral Measures of Impulsivity: The Immediate and Delayed Memory Tasks.
  • Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. 28(3): 408-414, March 2004, Justus, Alicia N., et al. P300, Disinhibited Personality, and Early-Onset Alcohol Problems.
  • Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. 25(10): 1457-1466, October 2001; Dick, D. M., and Foroud, T. Candidate Genes for Alcohol Dependence: A Review of Genetic Evidence From Human Studies. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. 27(5): 868-879, May 2003.

Filed Under: Misinformation