While poverty is usually associated with greater health risks, a study published Monday suggests that young teens from middle- to higher-income families may be somewhat more likely than their less affluent peers to use alcohol.
UK researchers found that among 5,837 thirteen-year-olds, those from the poorest families were the least likely to have tried liquor.
When the researchers divided the teens into five income groups, those in the lowest bracket were 22 percent less likely than the middle bracket to have had a drink in the past 6 months. They were similarly less likely to admit to binge-drinking.
On the flip side, the study found, the higher a mother's education level, the less likely her child was to drink.
The results, published in the journal Pediatrics, point to a complex relationship between socioeconomics and teen drinking, the researchers say.
They speculate that teenagers from wealthier families may have easier access to alcohol. But when mothers have more education, they may be more likely to emphasize the importance of a healthy lifestyle to their kids.
Whatever the reasons for the findings, the researchers say they reinforce the fact that all parents should be aware of the problem of early drinking -- but maybe particularly so in higher income families.
"More advantaged families tend to have healthier behavior" in general, lead author Roberto Melotti, of the University of Bristol, said in an e-mail. "Our results indicate an example where this is not the case."
At age 13, many kids who drink may get the alcohol from their own house, Melotti noted. So parents may want to make sure any alcohol is locked away, he said.
The findings are based on interviews with 13-year-olds taking part in a larger, long-term health study. Overall, one-quarter said they had ever had alcohol without permission, while one-fifth said they had ever "binged" - consumed three or more drinks in a day.
Overall, kids in the lowest income groups were less likely to report drinking -- even when the researchers factored in parents' occupations and education levels.
Teenagers whose mothers had higher education levels were also somewhat less likely to drink, regardless of income bracket. When mothers had a college degree, kids were 13 percent to 40 percent less likely to have had a drink in the past 6 months, versus their peers whose mothers had less than a high school education.
The findings may sound counterintuitive, since many of the teens from higher income families would also have mothers with higher education levels.
But, Melotti told Reuters Health, each factor had its own effect. (Even in higher income families, for example, a mother's education level still seemed to sway her child's odds of drinking).
The findings were different when it came to smoking, however. The 13-year-olds from lower income families were slightly more likely to admit to ever trying smoking -- a pattern that is in line with results of past studies, according to the researchers.
Overall, 16 percent of boys and 22 percent of girls in the UK study admitted to ever smoking.
In a 2009 survey on risky behaviors by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10 percent of American high school students admitted to having tried smoking a cigarette before age 13. Among 8th graders, between 30 and 60 percent (depending on the state) said they had had "more than a few sips" of alcohol.
Figuring out which children are most likely to drink and smoke at a very early age is important, according to Melotti, because the earlier the start, the greater the risk of lasting problems.
"Drinking at an early age," he said, "has been related to a series of adverse outcomes, including the risk of developing alcohol-use disorders in later life."