Early Onset of Drinking: What Research Shows

Early onset of drinking. That is, early age when people begin to drink. What are the results of it? Some say it leads to alcoholism later in life.


I.   Caution from NIAAA

II.  Federally-funded Research

III. Predicting Alcohol Behaviors

IV.  False Conclusion

V.   They Ignore NIAAA Warning

VI.  Resources

Early Onset of Drinking

I. Caution from NIAAA

A federal agency (NIAAA) summarizes research on the subject. That is, on any link between the early onset of drinking and later alcoholism.

early onset of drinkingPeople 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. 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. 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. Some evidence indicates that genetic factors may contribute to the relationship between early drinking and subsequent alcoholism.1 (Emphasis added)

II. Federally-funded Research

Federally funded research seriously questions whether early age of first drink has any effect on any later alcohol related problems. Alcohol researcher Dr. Helene White elaborates.

[A]ge of onset may simply be a marker of an already existing syndrome of problem behaviors. 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. McGue et al. 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. They also had a higher risk of as well as other drug dependence and other externalizing disorders.

They argued that all of these outcomes are manifestations of disinhibitory behavior or psychopathology. 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, they concluded that a common inherited vulnerability model appears to explain the association of early age of onset and later alcoholism.2  (Emphasis added.)

III. Predicting Alcohol Behaviors

Researchers who study small children’s behavior can predict later alcohol behaviors long before they took their first drink.

Trained interviewers rated childrens’ ability to control their impulses and behavior (behavioral control). They also rated childrens’ flexibly in adapting  their self-control to environmental demands (resiliency). This they did this from the time children were between three and five years old. Interviewers repeated this every three years until the children reached the age of 12 to 14. The researchers found that low behavioral control and resiliency predicted the onset of alcohol drinking in adolescence.

Other researchers also found that age at first drink is not causally linked with alcoholism. Instead, it’s linked with a wide range of measures of disinhibited behavior and mental pathology. Those who their first drank at an early age showed high rates of disinhibited behavior and mental pathology before they first try alcohol. They published their research as “Age at first drink and risk or alcoholism: a non causal association,” 3

IV. False Conclusion

Anti-alcohol activists point to the early age of first drink and later alcoholism found in some research. They say that if we keep  people from drinking until age 20 or older, they will be less likely to become alcoholic.

An example is anti-alcohol Joseph Califano. He falsely said 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.”4

A Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) official makes another false statement. He writes 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.” He presumably refers to graduation from high school.

The research says no such thing. It only states a link found in limited research, which may or may not be correct. It clearly doesn’t mean that keeping young people from drinking will reduce their risk of alcoholism.

V. They Ignore NIAAA Warning

Activists conveniently ignore NIAAA’s very important warning. That is, early age of first drink is not necessarily the cause of later alcoholism. And that caution is based on research evidence.

Again, both early onset of drinking and alcoholism may be caused by underlying personality traits. They include such athings as impulsivity, sensation seeking, or genetic factors.

For example, sensation-seeking personalities may drink at an early age. They night also have unprotected sex, gamble, drive recklessly, abuse alcohol, etc. Preventing them from doing in any one of these behaviors would have no effect on any of the others. Also, preventing early drinking would have no effect on a person’s genetic makeup. And that may be the real cause of alcoholism.3

Does early onset of drinking increase the risk of alcohol dependence? Probably not. And there’s other evidence that it doesn’t.

For instance, some groups and societies introduce children to drinking at an early age. Such groups include Jews, Italians, Greeks, Spaniards, and Portuguese. Yet they tend to have low rates of alcoholism. Also fewer problems related to alcohol.

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 have drinking and alcohol related problems. That wouldn’t support their agenda.

VI. Resources


1. NIAAA. Alcohol Alert, #59. Internal references deleted.

2. White, H. Age at First Consumption and Future Alcohol Related Problems. Int Cent for Alco Pol, n.d.

3. Prescott, C. and Kendler, K. Age at first drink and risk for alcoholism. A non causal association. Alco Clin Exper Res, 23(1), 101-107. (In spite of its title, this report examines alcohol problems in addition to alcoholism.)

4. CASA website.