Many studies have reported that the earlier the age at first drink, the higher the later drinking levels and related problems. However, unless adolescents proceed into drunkenness, it is unclear why consuming small quantities at an early age should lead to later problems.
A study by Emmanuel Kuntsche of the Behavioural Science Institute, Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands and colleagues investigated the link between age at first drink and problem behaviours (smoking, cannabis use, injuries, fights, and low academic performance) among 15-year-olds who did and did not proceed into drunkenness. Among those with drunkenness experience, the researchers tested whether age at first drink predicted problem behaviours over and above the age at first drunkenness.
The analysis was based on a sample of 44,801 alcohol-experienced 15-year-olds from 38 North American and European countries and regions who participated in the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children cross-national survey.
Overall, there was a significant association between age at first drink and all 5 problem behaviours, but only amongst those with drunkenness experiences but not amongst those never drunk. For the former group, age at first drunkenness was a strong predictor for all 5 problem behaviours, but time from first drink to first drunk did not predict problem behaviours.
The authors conclude that not early alcohol initiation but early drunkenness was a risk factor for various adolescent problem behaviours at the age of 15 and that there was not a consistent relationship for the time before the first drunkenness (i.e., since first drinking). The authors state that besides targeting early drinking, particular efforts are needed to impede early drunkenness to prevent associated harm in adolescence and beyond.
Source: Kuntsche E; Rossow I; Simons Morton B; Ter Bogt T; Kokkevi A; Godeau E, “Not early drinking but early drunkenness is a risk factor for problem behaviours among adolescents from 38 European and North American countries”, Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, Published early online 14 December 2012.