Adult consequences of adolescent drinking

A study of 9,000 young Australians and New Zealanders has found that adolescents who drink weekly before they reach 17 years of age are two to three times more likely to drink drive, binge drink, and be dependent on alcohol in adulthood compared with peers who don’t drink.

The study, conducted by the University of New South Wales in collaboration with the University of Otago and the Centre for Adolescent Health’s George Patton, John Toumbourou, Craig Olsson, Delyse Hutchinson, Denise Becker, Rohan Borschmann, and George Youssef, followed participants aged 13 to 30 years from 1991 to 2012.

Findings from the study indicate that frequency of alcohol consumption in adolescent years is just as likely as binge drinking and problem drinking, to predict alcohol related problems in adulthood.

30 outcomes were assessed between ages 13 and 30; including substance use and related problems, antisocial behaviour, sexual risk-taking, accidents, socioeconomic functioning, mental health and partner relationships. Results suggest that delaying and limiting alcohol use in adolescent years could potentially prevent alcohol-related health risks in later years. The study additionally highlights the importance for public health messages to focus on not only the amount of alcohol consumed, but also the frequency of its consumption.

Lead author Dr Edmund Silins said that “Discouraging or delaying alcohol use in adolescence is likely to have substantial benefits in adulthood in terms of preventing harmful drinking behaviours which adversely affect health and wellbeing”. Dr Silins added that “Current public health messages tend to focus on the amount consumed, and there are fewer messages recommending less frequent drinking”.

Co-author Prof George Patton said “The study further debunks the myth that teen experimentation with alcohol promotes responsible drinking; instead, it sets a young person up for later-life problem drinking”.

Key messages

  • Frequency of early drinking appears to be at least as good a predictor of future drinking problems as early binge drinking and problem drinking.
  • Public health messages need to focus as much on frequency of drinking as quantity.
  • There is a causal relationship between adolescent drinking and alcohol problems in adulthood.
  • Adolescent experimentation with alcohol doesn’t promote responsible drinking.

Read the full research report:

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