Efforts to curb underage drinking in the U.S. should start as early as the fourth grade, a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center researcher reports in the current issue of Prevention Science.
In a review of state and national surveys of alcohol use among children in grades 3 through 6 conducted over the last 15 years, Dr. John E. Donovan found that among typical 4th graders, 10 percent had already had more than a sip of alcohol and 7 percent had a drink in the past year.
While the numbers are small in the 4th grade, the data show that the percent of children who have used alcohol increases with age and doubles between the 4th and 6th grades, with the largest jump seen between grades 5 and 6.
“It is clear from this review that attention to children’s alcohol use cannot wait until they are adolescents,” warns Donovan.
At each grade level, boys were more likely to have used alcohol than girls, and African American children were nearly twice as likely as white or Hispanic children to have used alcohol.
The good news from the surveys, which were conducted on a regular basis since 1990, is that the number of elementary school children who have tried alcohol has been declining substantially over time.
“But the numbers are still alarming because of the connection between early alcohol consumption and negative outcomes later during both adolescence and young adulthood,” Donovan notes in a statement from the Society for Prevention Research.
There is ample evidence, he concludes, that children are drinking alcohol and “our concern with underage drinking needs to start in elementary school, not in high school or college.”
“Childhood use of alcohol,” Donovan also points out, ”predicts involvement in alcohol problems, alcohol abuse and dependence in both adolescence and adulthood. And early drinking relates to a variety of other problems, including absences from school, delinquent behavior, drinking and driving, sexual intercourse and pregnancy.”