Adolescent alcohol use

The earlier a young person starts drinking, the higher their risk of experiencing alcohol-related harm and developing alcohol dependence. For each year a child delays drinking, it is estimated that they reduce their risk of becoming dependent on alcohol by 9–21% [1].

Those under 15 years of age are at a very high risk of harm - particularly in relation to becoming alcohol dependent in later years. In a 2013 New Zealand survey, 60% of 15-19 year olds reported consuming alcohol before the age of 15 years [2].

Adolescents experience more harm from their drinking

Young people experience many more harms from their drinking when compared to other age groups. This is partly due to the high amounts of alcohol that young people drink as well as their immature bodies being unable to cope with the damaging effects of alcohol. Again, those under 15 years of age are at a very high risk of short and long-term harm from alcohol, but a high risk remains for drinkers aged 15−17 years [3].

Harms from drinking include:

  • Being less likely to finish high school: the more alcohol-related harms a young student in New Zealand experiences, the less likely they are to finish high school [4]. We would all agree that this is not the future we want for our children.
  • Health risks: New Zealand adolescents who drink are at an increased risk of a later diagnosis of a sexually transmitted infection [5], major depression [6], and an increased risk of violent offending [7].
  • Suicide: In 2014, 510 New Zealanders committed suicide. Over one-third (34%) had alcohol in their system and a further 23% had a trace of alcohol in their system. Alcohol consumption has been clearly linked with youth suicide [8].
  • Irreversible impairment of brain functioning: The immature brain is particularly sensitive to alcohol use, especially those parts the brain responsible for learning and memory [9]. There is no safe or harmless level of drinking with regards to its effects on verbal learning and memory. Each drink further decreases a young person’s performance in relation to long-term cued and recalled memory, immediate recall, global verbal learning ability, short and long verbal recall, and overall word recognition discriminability. Female adolescent brains are particularly vulnerable to the damaging effects of alcohol [11].
  • Death: A significant proportion of deaths (24% in 2005-2007) in children and young people aged less than 16 years in New Zealand are attributable to their own alcohol use [12]. Of the 126 deaths in 15-19 year olds in New Zealand in 2014, the majority resulted from traffic accidents and self-harm. Alcohol use can often be a contributing factor to both of these causes of death.
  • Alcohol dependence: Many persons who are alcohol dependent developed their dependence or addiction in adolescence.
  • Injury and other harms: In 2012, New Zealand secondary school students reported the following harms attributable to their drinking: injury, doing things which could result in serious trouble, having unsafe sex, and having performance at school or work affected [13]. Students of Māori and Pacific ethnicity and/or living in socio-economic disadvantage were more likely to report a range of alcohol-related harms.

New Zealand low-risk drinking guidelines

New Zealand guidelines [14]  are consistent with those in Canada [15], Australia [16], and the United Kingdom [17], and recommend that young people delay alcohol consumption for as long as possible, particularly those under the age of 15 years. It is further recommend that if drinking has initiated, it should occur under guidance, and at low levels and frequency [18].

Want to know more?

Click here for a factsheet on the harms from drinking in adolescence

Click here for a factsheet on trends in adolescent drinking in New Zealand

Click here for a factsheet on the role of alcohol availability in adolescent drinking