Fewer Kids Are Starting to Drink in Early Grades

Armen Hareyan's picture

Under-age Drinking

While the average age for starting to drink has remained at 13 to 14 over recent decades, the proportion of young people imbibing at early ages has dropped, a new study shows.

The researchers analyzed three large national surveys to show specific trends and characteristics of teenage drinking ranging from 1975 onward, with data from 1991 to 1998 representing current teen drinking. The study will be published in the June issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

"The data indicate a worsening [drinking] situation in the 1970s with increasing numbers of youth starting to drink in the earlier grades, followed by an improving situation in the mid-1980s, by which time the drinking age had been raised to age 21 in all 50 states," write researchers led by Vivian Faden, Ph.D., of the National Institutes on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.


Despite the improvements, "12.9 percent of 12-year-olds, 23.8 percent of 13-year-olds and 36.5 percent of 14-year-olds report having initiated drinking," the authors found. By eighth grade, 40 percent of all young people have initiated alcohol use, rising to about three-quarters by senior year of high school.

For study purposes, drinking was defined as consumption of a can or bottle of beer, a glass of wine or a wine cooler, a shot of liquor or a mixed drink containing liquor.

Faden said that young children most often have access to alcohol from older peers or adults who provide it to or buy it for them. "Underage drinking is a very serious problem that creates adverse consequences for adolescents, their families, their communities and our country," she said.

The study also showed that fewer eighth-graders start drinking early but 10 percent of 9- to 10-year-olds have had a drink. In 2003, nearly 28 percent of underage drinkers had a drink before age 13. Trends were similar for both boys and girls, and across ethnic lines.

Prevalence of young people drinking by the time they leave middle and high school has held steady. Among those who drink, rates of dangerous patterns of drinking, such as binge consumption