Frequency of teens’ alcohol intake predicts trouble in adulthood

Brigid O’Connell, Health reporter, Herald Sun July 10, 2018

HOW often teenagers drink alcohol, rather than the amount they drink, is a more accurate predictor of who will develop alcohol problems in early adulthood.

Teens who drink at least weekly before age 17 are up to three times more likely to binge drink, drink drive, and have alcohol dependency in their 20s compared with teetotaller peers, a new study of more than 9000 young people has found.

Researchers say the findings further support the need to discourage or delay alcohol use in adolescence, as well as changing public health messages to focus on reducing the frequency of alcohol consumption, not just binge drinking.

“Some of those policy ­options are worth exploring.”

Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and the University of New South Wales took data from four longitudinal cohorts, which had followed 9000 Australian and New Zealand teenagers for 17 years, from ages 13 to 30.

They compared drinking patterns during adolescence to 30 psychosocial measures between the ages 21 and 30, to find that early unhealthy drinking patterns persisted into adulthood.

Frequency of teen drinking predicted substance problems in adulthood as much as, and in some case more than, binge or problem drinking.

Co-author MCRI professor George Patton said they found that the more people drank in their teens — either the amount or frequency — the greater the chance of later ­alcohol problems.

“This is challenging the ­notion that by exposing kids to alcohol during their teens they might learn some useful skills in terms of how to drink sensibly,” Prof Patton said.

In the study, published in the journal Addiction, researchers concluded that if all alcohol use before age 17 was eliminated, substance use and alcohol problems in adulthood would reduce by up to a third.

But if only weekly drinking or binge sessions by teenagers were prevented, up to 10 per cent of harmful drinking patterns in adults could be avoided. Prof Patton said that given adolescence was a vulnerable time for brain development, and that habits formed during these years persisted into adulthood, these findings should help inform policy to reduce the frequency of teen drinking.

“An attractive scheme is graduated laws around the purchase of alcohol,” he said.

“In some places you can buy alcohol when you turn 18 in a licensed premises such as a restaurant, but you can’t buy it to take away.

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