17 Jan 2017

'Cheers, dad!' How getting booze from your folks affects drinking habits

11:03 am on 17 January 2017

Children given alcohol by parents are less likely to binge than those who get drinks from others, study finds. But should parents really give kids their first drink? 

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It may have been a cheeky sip of dad’s beer on a fishing trip, a glass of wine at a family dinner, or perhaps you over-zealously downed six vodka cruisers at a friend’s birthday.

No matter how it happened, most can remember their first drink and now researchers are more convinced than ever that where you get your first tastes of alcohol will affect future drinking habits.

In a recent study, nearly 2000 young people were followed between the ages 12 and 15 in Australia to find out what happens when parents supply them with alcohol versus getting it from friends or older siblings.

The study, published in the Psychological Medicine journal, found children who got alcohol from people other than their parents were three-times more likely to binge drink by 15 or 16, compared to those given a drink by their folks.

As well as lower rates of binge drinking, parentally-supplied children also consumed fewer drinks on a given drinking occasion, appearing to give credence to the so-called “European model” where children start drinking moderately earlier in life.

But study author Professor Richard Mattick said the most important finding was that providing alcohol to anyone under 18 increases the likelihood of drinking: those who were given alcohol by their parents were likely to be drinking full serves of alcohol by the time they are 15 or 16, the study found.

"Providing any alcohol actually makes them more likely to drink than not," he told The Sydney Morning Herald.

In New Zealand, there is no age at which it is illegal to drink alcohol. However, it is illegal to supply alcohol to someone under 18 without consent from their parent or legal guardian.

Nearly 60 percent of youth aged 15–17 years were past-year drinkers in New Zealand, according to the most recent findings of the NZ Health Survey, and heavy-drinking was highest among those aged18-24 at 34 percent.

Professor Doug Sellman from the University of Otago told The Wireless there are over 200 diseases and conditions that are directly alcohol-related, many of which are dangerous during adolescence.

“There is evidence of damage to the hippocampus from alcohol — one of the key parts of the brain associated with laying down new memories — in young heavy drinkers which may not fully recover.”

International research shows about a third of young people in US, European and Australian studies are given alcohol from parents. The reasons make sense: parents want to teach their children responsible drinking; they’re concerned their friends or other adults will provide alcohol anyway; or it's part of cultural, religious, or celebratory events.

While the Australian study shows a lower prevalence of binge drinking in young people given alcohol by the parents, the researchers point out that it doesn’t necessarily mean they won't binge drink later on in life.

“These results should not be taken to suggest that parental supply is somehow protective of bingeing in the longer term. In fact, parents may be accelerating children into drinking alcohol, and laying down the potential for later harms.”