Adolescents start drinking early

In Quebec, you have to be 18 before you may legally purchase alcohol. But most young Quebecers take their first drink well before then.

A recent study of 481 Quebec students in grades 5 and 6 showed that 50% of boys and 35% of girls under the age of 12 had already tried alcohol; among this group, the first drink was usually around the age of 9. The most recent data, collected in 2006 among the 4,571 high school students (grades 7-11) who took part in the EnquĂŞte quĂ©bĂ©coise sur le tabac, l’alcool, la drogue et le jeu chez les Ă©lèves du secondaire, shows that the average age at which children had their first drink was 12.7 for girls and 12.4 for boys.

This is similar to the average age of 12.4 obtained by Statistics Canada in a 1998-99 study of 4,296 adolescents aged 12 to 15.

It should be noted that having a first drink with family, in an appropriate setting where everyone is drinking moderately, is not at all the same as doing so with peers, where risk-taking and excess are valued. The drink may be the same, but when it comes to drinking habits, the results will be completely different. In the first instance, adolescents learn that moderate alcohol consumption is something that enhances the pleasure of being together; in the second, they learn that the goal is to get drunk.

Adolescents are drinking less than they used to

As for adolescent drinking habits, the results of the biennial Quebec study first done in 2000 are encouraging, although still worrisome.

The percentage of high school students who say they had a drink in the 12 months prior to the survey has dropped significantly in six years, but it remains high, falling from 71.3% to 60.4% between 2000 and 2006.

Most adolescents are occasional drinkers

Among pre-teens who say they have tried alcohol, almost all of them (89%) are “explorers” who report having taken a few sips, or no more than one drink, a few times during the previous year. Among high school students who drink, most (62.2%) are occasional drinkers who drink less than once a month or say they have drunk alcohol about once a month in the 12 months preceding the survey. Note, however, that 30% of grade 10 students and 36.8% of those in grade 11 are regular drinkers who have alcohol at least twice a week.

With teenagers, moderation is unfortunately not the rule. In fact, the opposite is true: when they drink, they tend to drink a great deal, a phenomenon corroborated by a number of European and American studies. Among Quebec high school students who said they had drunk alcohol during the previous 12 months, 67.4% of boys and 64.6% of girls had five or more drinks on a single occasion. By comparison, 50% of adult drinkers in Quebec say they drink excessively at least once a year.

According to the Institut de la statistique du QuĂ©bec, episodes of excessive drinking and repeated excessive drinking increase significantly among adolescents as they get older. “From 12 to 13, the prevalence of excessive drinking practically doubles, from 30% to 53%. From 13 to 15, it increases again, from 53% to 68%. After that, it continues to increase with each year, from 68% (age 15) to 78% (16) and then to 83% (17 and older). The same phenomenon is observed with regard to the prevalence of repeated excessive drinking (at least five episodes of excessive drinking in the last 12 months). From the age of 12 and under to age 15, the prevalence rises from 6% to 24%, then up to 36% and 42% among students 16 and 17 or older.” In short, more than one young adolescent in 20 and at least one-third of teens 16 to 17 get drunk frequently.

The more people mix alcohol with energy drinks, the more they drink

While adolescents already have a tendency to drink excessively on a single occasion, the risk factor has been aggravated by energy drinks, which are extremely popular among young people. According to the Marin Institute in California, 31% of 12 to 17-year-olds drink energy drinks regularly.

Energy drinks contain taurine,* glucuronolactone** and about 80 mg of caffeine, or the equivalent of one cup of coffee. The drinks are sold and consumed for their stimulant effect, particularly at parties and raves.

Adolescents mix alcohol with energy drinks to stay awake longer and also to mask the unpleasant taste of alcohol. This can be expected to increase the number of alcoholic beverages consumed per occasion, as well as the speed at which alcohol is ingested.

One study corroborates this expectation and finds that, compared to those who do not mix the two, people who mix alcohol and energy drinks:

  • drink more on each occasion (5.8 vs. 4.5 drinks);
  • have a higher maximum per occasion (8.3 vs. 6.1 drinks);
  • get drunk weekly twice as often (1.4 vs. 0.73 times).

*Taurine is an amino acid initially isolated in bull bile and now produced synthetically for energy drinks.
**Glucoronolactone is a chemical composite produced naturally in the liver by the metabolism of glucose.

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