Drinking Alcohol at an Early Age (Early Onset of Drinking) and Later Alcohol Problems: New Research

Drinking at an early age (early onset of drinking) has been associated with later alcoholism and other drinking problems in several western countries.

This has led some people to believe that delaying the age at which young people first drink alcohol might reduce the later incidence of alcohol abuse and alcoholism. That might work if drinking at an early age actually causes subsequent alcohol problems.

However, there is growing evidence that early drinking, in societies not permitting it, is not the cause, but only a symptom of an underlying predisposition to alcoholism and other behavioral problems.

Now another research study has found evidence suggesting that early onset of drinking is not a cause of drinking problems. Researchers again found that by monitoring young children’s behavior they could predict subsequent alcohol problems.

Trained interviewers rated children’s ability to control their impulses and behavior (behavioral control) and to flexibly adapt their self-control to environmental demands (resiliency). This was done from the time children were between three and five years old and every three years thereafter until the children reached the age of 12 to 14.

The researchers found that low behavioral control and resiliency predicted the onset of alcohol and illicit drug use in adolescence.

Similarly, in “Age at first drink and risk or alcoholism: a non causal association,”* researchers found that age at first drink is not causally associated with alcoholism but is associated with a wide range of indicators of disinhibited behavior and psychopathology. Individuals who first drank at an early age exhibited high rates of disinhibitory behavior and psychopathology before they first try alcohol.

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.

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.

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.

McGue, M. et al. Origins and consequences of age at first drink. I. Associations with substance-use disorders, disinhibitory behavior and psychopathology, and P3 amblitude. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 2001, 8, 1156-1165.

Rose, R.J. A developmental behavior–genetic perspective on alcoholism risk. Alcohol Health & Research World 22(2): 131–143, 1998.

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.

So it would appear that, at best, attempts to raise the age of first drink would be ineffective in reducing alcohol abuse and alcoholism. In fact, attempts to raise age at first drink may very well be counter-productive.



  • Wong, P. M., et al. Behavioral control and resiliency in the onset of alcohol and illicit drug use: A prospective study from preschool to adolescence. Child Development, 2006, 77(4), 1016-1033.

*Prescott, Carol A., and Kendler, Kenneth S. Age at first drink and risk for alcoholism: A non causal association. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 1999, 23(1), 101-107. (In spite of its title, this report examines alcohol problems in addition to alcoholism.)