A new study on underage drinking in the UK calls for further investigation into alcohol use among primary school children, and for prevention of underage drinking to be extended to this young an age.
A team of American researchers led by professors at Penn State University analysed information provided by children born across the UK in 2000-01, who are being followed by the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS). They found that by the age 11, one in eight children had tried alcohol, defined as more than a few sips. Drunkenness was rare.
The health, economic, and social costs of alcohol use are enormous. In the US, estimated annual costs are over $220 billion, of which $27 billion are due to underage drinking. Alcohol misuse costs England around £21 billion per year in healthcare, crime and lost productivity costs.
The MCS is following the lives of 19,000 children born across the UK in 2000-01. They were asked about their experiences with alcohol in their last year of primary school, Year 6. The MCS is the first national study to capture early life predictors of alcohol use at this young an age.
Children from poorer or less advantaged backgrounds were more likely to have ever tried alcohol, as were those with more positive expectations of what might happen if they drink. The odds of ever drinking were higher among boys and slightly lower among Asian British or Black British children.
Consistent with studies of American youth aged 10 to 14, children in the MCS whose mothers had lower educational levels were more likely to have tried a drink.
Although the number of children drinking heavily in primary school in the UK is very low, fewer than 1 in 100, the researchers pointed out that this unusual behaviour warrants attention, as it could lead to serious future problems.
Previous research has found that the younger a person is when they first drink, the greater the likelihood of subsequent serious adolescent and adult health and social problems.
National surveys in the US and UK have found that the risk for starting to drink increases in early adolescence. However some studies have found a small but significant number of children start drinking in primary school.
Underage drinking appears more common in the UK than in the US. A comparison of UK teenagers in the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs with American 10th graders in the Monitoring the Future Study suggests 65 per cent of UK teenagers have been drunk by the time they are 15-16 years, compared to 41 per cent in the US.
The researchers called for further investigation of very young underage drinking among American youth, as no national data looking at primary school age drinking and socioeconomic background exist in the US. They called for public efforts on underage drinking to be extended beyond secondary school students, to children in the later primary years.
However, the authors emphasised that the rarity of very underage alcohol use underscores the importance of rebutting media claims that heavy drinking is widespread at this young age – because believing such behaviours to be common can become, in itself, a risk factor.
Read the full paper Alcohol use at the cusp of adolescence: A prospective national birth cohort study of prevalence and risk factors by Jennifer Maggs (Penn State University, 2015), which is published by the Journal of Adolescent Health. Co-authors are Jeremy Staff (Penn State University), Megan Patrick (University of Michigan), Laura Wray-Lake (University of Rochester), and John Schulenberg (University of Michigan).
The alcohol use measures in the MCS were co-funded by grant AA019606 from the US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
‘Stubborn group of underage drinkers bucks overall decline in drinking among young people’ research by Yvonne Kelly (2015) into underage drinking using MCS data.