Adolescent drinking: Éduc’alcool warns against early alcohol use

January 2010 – – The longer adolescents wait before drinking and getting drunk for the first time, and the more their introduction to alcohol occurs under appropriate circumstances and with parental guidance, the better it will be for them. That is the conclusion of the latest report in Éduc’alcool’s “Alcohol and Health” series. The monograph examines early alcohol use and its harmful effects, and explains the basic reasons why young people should not have unrestricted access to alcohol.

With this report, Éduc’alcool hopes to help delay the start of drinking as long as possible as the younger adolescents are when they begin drinking – without supervision – the more frequently they drink, and to excess. Conversely, in some societies, young people learn to drink under carefully controlled circumstances and with parental supervision. That kind of initiation has a beneficial impact and reduces the frequency of intoxication.

In the newly released publication, simple language is used to explain the phenomenon of adolescence and describe how the brain develops during this period. Éduc’alcool goes on to show how this puts adolescents doubly at risk for alcohol abuse: their capacity to think properly and make good judgements is still developing, and they are thrill seekers.

Problems related to early drinking

The consequences of early alcohol use are the primary focus of the Éduc’alcool report. In brief, it is shown that:

– The tremendous plasticity of the adolescent brain, and the fact that it undergoes so many changes during puberty, increases the risk that young people will damage their brains more than adults who drink the same amount of alcohol.

– Difficulties with emotion control, delinquent behaviour and alcohol dependence in people in their early twenties are often associated with early alcohol consumption (age 13 or younger).

– When young people drink before the age of 21, the risk of drug problems later on increases by 70%.

– Since adolescence is associated with pronounced hormonal changes, drinking during this time is particularly likely to disturb the hormonal balance necessary for the development of organs, muscles, bones and the reproductive system.

– Prolonged excessive drinking causes a number of health problems: when adolescents get drunk, even just once, they are at risk for serious physical dysfunction. Adolescents who drink frequently and abusively suffer secondary effects, such as changes in appetite, weight loss, eczema, headaches and sleep disturbances.

– Despite the zero tolerance rule for new drivers, drinking and driving is still a disastrous combination among young people, far too many of whom are unfortunately involved in serious accidents where alcohol is a factor.

– Because abusive drinking promotes risk-taking, a disproportionately high number of adolescents report incidents and accidents caused by excessive drinking. Research shows, in fact, that alcohol probably contributes to poor judgement with regard to sexual behaviour and facilitates the expression of violence among those who are predisposed to it.

What Éduc’alcool recommends

In order to avoid health and social problems, Éduc’alcool makes the following recommendations for teens and pre-teens:

  • Delay the start of drinking as long as possible.
  • Never drink abusively, no matter what the circumstances.
  • Avoid taking any additional risks while under the influence of alcohol.
  • Remember that alcohol plays games with your perceptions.
  • Never drive while impaired.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you’re in trouble.

Éduc’alcool has the following recommendations for parents:

  • Keep the lines of communication open and easy with your teens and pre-teens.
  • Listen to what they say and talk to them about drinking.
  • Delay their first drink as long as possible.
  • Arrange it so that they have their first drink under your supervision, ideally at a family meal where alcohol enhances the pleasure of being together.
  • Watch to see if and how your teens and pre-teens are drinking, and take action to monitor them more carefully if they are engaging in risky behaviour.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help if your adolescent child is in trouble, if you are unable to communicate, or if you lose control of the situation.

Where to get the publication

“The Effects of Early Alcohol Use” can be downloaded from the Éduc’alcool website (www.educalcool.qc.ca). Free copies may also be obtained by calling 1-888-ALCOOL1. In addition, the publication is available in hospitals, CLSCs and SAQ outlets.