There is a correlation between the age at which a person first drinks and subsequent alcohol-related problems. This had led many to conclude that an early age of onset of drinking causes alcohol problems.
A Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) official has asserted that "research tells us if we can keep the kids off cigarettes and alcohol, by the time they graduate there's almost zero percent chance they will abuse any other type of drug." 1
Public alcohol policy in the U.S. is largely based on such an assumption. However, federally funded research continues to question the belief that age of first drink has any effect upon later alcohol dependence or alcohol-related problems. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has analyzed the research on the relationship between the onset of drinking at an early age and alcohol dependence later in life and concludes that "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." 2
Common sense also raises questions about any such causal connection. Drowning increases when ice cream consumption increases. But eating ice cream doesn't cause people to drown. Summer increases both ice cream consumption and swimming - and more people swimming leads to more drowning.
Enter impulsivity, disinhibition, and sensation-seeking. Sensation seeking is a trait describing the tendency to seek novel, varied, complex, and intense sensations and experiences and the willingness to take risks for the sake of such experience.
These and other personality traits have been linked with both early onset of drinking and with heavy drinking and alcohol-related problems later in life. Such early-appearing personality characteristics can apparently cause both drinking at an early age and subsequent alcohol problems.
Researcher Dr. 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. 3
That's why psychologists have been able to observe the behavior of pre-school children and predict, on the basis of their interaction with others, which children will later become problem drinkers.
If we could stop children from drinking alcohol at an early age that wouldn't change their personalities so that they would begin deferring gratification and avoiding excitement such as speeding, engaging in sex, or playing body-contact sports. And if we stopped them from engaging in those activities, that wouldn't make them become safer drivers or alcohol abstainers.If alcohol policies are based on false assumptions, they are likely to be ineffective and a waste of effort and resources.