Why is Age of First Use of Alcohol so Critically Important?
Kids who start drinking alcohol before age 15 are 5 times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than people who first used alcohol at age 21 or older. A study published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine showed that 47% of those who began drinking before age 15 experienced alcohol dependence at some point in their life, compared to 9% percent of those who began drinking at age 21 or older.
Substance use by young people is a constantly evolving phenomenon as various drugs go in and out of favour over time. Recent Canadian surveys show that tobacco, alcohol and cannabis are the substances most frequently used by youth. In fact, international comparisons of alcohol and cannabis use by young people indicate that Canada ranks among the leading countries for rates of prevalence and frequency. Alcohol is by far the most common substance used by youth. A recent national school survey of students in grades 7–9 found that about two-thirds had already consumed alcohol. Another national survey of Canadian youth aged 15–24 showed that 83% were current (or past-year) drinkers. Similarly, provincial surveys of junior high and high school students show that half to two-thirds are current users of alcohol.
Substance use and harm in the general youth population.
Adolescence and young adulthood is a period of biological, intellectual, and psychosocial development. Many lifelong skills and behaviour patterns are established during this time. The use of alcohol and illicit drugs typically begins during adolescence. For most, this use is experimental or occasional, but a substantial minority will experience harm to their current or subsequent health, or threaten the well-being of others.
Substance use among non-mainstream youth.
While most adolescents do not have substance use problems, certain groups of youth are more likely than their peers to report heavy use, multi-drug use, social and economic problems due to use and dependence disorders. Emerging research exploring the reasons for this higher risk suggests that some teens may be self-medicating to cope with toxic environments, untreated trauma, and underlying psychological conditions. Current population approaches for preventing adolescent drug use may not address the key issues for groups at highest risk, but may only reach the majority who are not likely to experience substantial harms from drug use.