The percentage of kids who have their first alcoholic drink before turning 13 has shrunk in recent decades, new research shows.

But underage drinking is “clearly a continuing and critical problem,” writes Vivian Faden, PhD, in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

Faden reviewed three large, national studies on underage drinking that involved tens of thousands of U.S. students. The first of those studies started in the 1970s; the most recent data are from 2003.

According to one of those surveys, as of 2003, nearly 13 percent of 12-year-olds, almost 24 percent of 13-year-olds, and about 36 percent of 14-year-olds report having had their first drink, notes Faden, who works at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

While very early drinking is down, some kids “are beginning to drink very early (at age 10 or younger) and represent a high-risk group, which should be identified and intervened with early,” writes Faden.

Alcohol Problems Up in College Students

Drinking Data

In the surveys, students reported whether they had ever had an alcoholic drink. A drink was defined as a can or bottle of beer, a glass of wine or wine cooler, a shot of liquor, or a mixed drink, “not just a sip or two from a drink,” Faden writes.

Seventh and eighth grades (aged 13-14 years) are the peak years for having a first alcoholic drink. That didn’t change in the 1990s.

Twenty years earlier, the 1970s had a “worsening situation” of having a first alcoholic drink at earlier ages, writes Faden, noting improvements in the mid-1980s, when the legal drinking age was raised to 21 in all 50 states.

The surveys don’t show the circumstances of those first drinks. So it’s not clear if those drinks were hidden from parents or part of a family meal or religious ceremony, or whether they led to regular drinking.

Understanding Alcohol Abuse -- Treatment

Very Young Drinkers

One of the surveys includes 1993-2003 data on eighth-grade students who said they’d had an alcoholic drink.

In 1993, 10 percent of those students said they’d had their first alcoholic drink in the fourth grade, compared to about 7 percent a decade later. Drops were also seen for having had a first drink in fifth and sixth grades, with a smaller decrease in seventh grade.

It’s important to identify those very young drinkers “as early as possible,” writes Faden, adding that “certain interventions work well for youth who have not started consuming alcohol, but are much less effective with youth who have already begun drinking.”

Are You a Risky Drinker?

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Faden, V. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, June 2006. Health Behavior News Service.