Alcohol Consumption In The U.S. Starts As Early As Second Grade, Varies By Race, Study Shows

Kids May Be Consuming Alcohol Earlier Than You Think

By second grade your child is likely to be delving into more complex concepts of science and math and broadening their knowledge of the world, child development experts say. And according to a new study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, they're also liable to be taking their first sips of alcohol.

Based on data collected from 452 children in one Pennsylvania county each year from ages 8-and-a-half through 18, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh discovered that by age 8, 37 percent had sipped alcohol. That number jumped to 66 percent by age 12. And by the time the group hit 18.5 years old, nearly all (96 percent) had sipped or tasted alcohol, a habit associated with behaviors such as binge drinking, marijuana use, delinquency, precocious sexual behavior, drinking and driving in adolescence, and substance use disorder later, previous studies have shown.

But one finding of note in the study was that early-onset drinking didn't occur at the same age across racial groups. Instead, only 18 percent of 8.5-year-old Black children sipped alcohol compared with 44 percent of White children, the study notes. And at age 11, 36 percent of Black children were light drinkers compared with 57 percent of White kids.

The differences, which lead researcher, John E. Donovan, attributes to factors such as stronger parental disapproval of teen drinking in African-American families, the lower response of African-American teens to peer pressure, and the greater influence of religiosity in African-American families, is consistent with earlier research.

"Studies have shown that the African-American culture may hold more conservative views about drinking compared to the majority culture in the United States," said Sarah L. Pedersen, assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, who authored a study in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research last November.

A similar study slated for publication later this year recently sought to understand why the differences in early drinking exists and what impact it has long-term.

Similar to the team at the University of Pittsburgh, psychiatrists at the Yale University School of Medicine agree that early drinking is essentially a marker of risk for later alcohol-related problems, but their research adds that both environmental factors, such as parenting and school influences, and genetics.

What they concluded: that genes contribute to problem drinking to a greater extent in African-American women than European-American women and that certain environmental factors influence drinking habits among White women more than it does for blacks.

"In an environment that discourages heavy alcohol use, genetics –- and individual-specific environmental influences –- then drive the risk for problem drinking," said Yale professor Carolyn E. Sartor, noting the aspects of environments in which African-American girls are being raised that protect them against problem drinking, and which are not in place to the same degree for European-American girls.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 93.4 percent of adolescents ages 12 to 14 who drank alcohol in the past month got it for free. In many cases, underage drinkers access alcohol through family members or find it at home.

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