Despite several studies showing that drinking alcohol at an early age can lead to problems later on in life, parents still continue to give young children sips of alcohol. A new study shows that many children had their first sip of alcohol as young as eight years old.

Drawing from the population surorunding Pittsburgh, the study followed a group of 452 children for 10 years begining from age 8. Over a decade, researchers followed up with the group 14 times, asking their age when they first tasted alcohol, when they first had a drink, and when they first had three or more drinks on the same occasion or got drunk. Participants were also asked if they had ever experienced hangovers or passing out from too much alcohol.

The researchers found that at 8 years old, 37 percent of participants had tasted alcohol, and at 12 years old, two-thirds had already tried the drink. Until age 12, participants' behaviors indicated two classes of drinkers: abstainers and sippers. But between ages 13 and 18, sippers progressed to be light drinkers, and a new class emerged: drinkers with drunkenness.

At age 14, 75 percent of the sample had tasted alcohol, 19 percent were drinkers, and 3 percent had at least three drinks on a single occasion. By age 18, 96 percent of the group had sipped alcohol, 78 percent were drinking, and about one-third reported alcohol-related problems.

"Our earlier research found that childhood sipping predicts early initiation of drinking — drinking by age 14 or younger," John Donovan, an associate professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said. He suggests parents abstain from letting their children sample their drink.

"The numbers are troubling, but not that surprising," Dr. Marc Galanter, director of the division of alcoholism and drug abuse at the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, told HealthDay News. "Much of this is certainly cultural. Drinking in some families is normal, even for young kids, in certain ethnic and cultural groups."

Although the study fell short on some factors — including its use of data from only one county, including few Hispanic or Asian families, and using self-reported data — the researchers found results that matched previous studies. For example, with regards to ethnicities, they found that while 44 percent of children from European-American families had tried alcohol by 8 years old, only 18 percent had tried it in Black families.

These findings match those of a longitudinal study in which early alcohol use in European-Americans was more likely to result in problem use later on in life, compared to African-American women.

The study, which looked at 3,532 twins, found that genes contributed to drinking problems in African-American women, while environmental factors influenced European-American women.

Donovan believes the reason for these differences include stronger disapproval from parents and an emphasis on religion.

"In an environment that discourages heavy alcohol use, genetics — and individual-specific environmental influences — then drive the risk for problem drinking," Carolyn E. Sartor, Yale professor and lead author of the longitudinal study, said.

Underage drinking results in almost 5,000 deaths each year, and may contribute to brain impairment, liver damage, and abnormal growth and hormone production during puberty, according the the National Institutes of Health.


Donovan J, Molina B. Types of Alcohol Use Experience From Childhood Through Adolescence. Journal of Adolescent Health. 2013.

Sartor C, Nelson E, Lynskey M, et al. Are There Differences Between Young African-American and European-American Women in the Relative Influences of Genetics Versus Environment on Age at First Drink and Problem Alcohol Use? Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. 2013.