Alcohol and young people
Alcohol and young people
- Almost half (46%) of 12 to 17-year-olds drank alcohol in the past year.29
- Young people are at greater risk of alcohol-related harm than adults.30
- Drinking alcohol can impact brain development up until the age of 25, resulting in affected attention, memory, and decision-making abilities.31,32
- The earlier a young person is introduced to alcohol, and the more frequently they drink, can increase the likelihood of them becoming dependent on alcohol later in life.8,33
- Delaying drinking alcohol as long as possible can help to reduce harms. The Australian alcohol guidelines recommend delaying the first drink until at least 18-years-old.30
- While young people are less likely to drink alcohol than past generations, when they do, they are likely to drink to intoxication, resulting in injuries, alcohol poisoning and sometimes death.30
- There is strong and consistent evidence that alcohol causes cancer, increasing the risk for mouth, throat, breast, bowel, liver and pancreatic cancer.34
A time of change
Young people refers to people aged 12 to 25-years.
Adolescence and young adulthood is a significant period of transition in a person’s life.
It is a time when young people are undergoing rapid emotional, physical and intellectual changes and many modifiable behaviours (such as smoking and drinking alcohol) either emerge or accelerate during this time.
This natural transition from childhood to adulthood places a young person at a crossroads of – often intensely felt – physical and emotional changes.
The physical changes include the introduction of sex hormones during puberty and significant change and development in the brain.
The adolescent period is typically between 10 to 19-years, although research suggests that development continues into the mid-20s.
At this stage, many young people engage in increased risk-taking and sensation-seeking behaviours, and related experiences may play an important role in shaping and preparing the brain for adulthood.36,37
This common shift in behaviour towards searching for novelty and excitement can be expressed in many ways, including experimentation with alcohol.
Young people and alcohol use
Drinking alcohol is part of Australia’s culture and adolescents have traditionally sought access to alcohol as a badge of adulthood.
Delaying drinking alcohol as long as possible can help to reduce harms.
The Australian alcohol guidelines recommend delaying the first drink until at least 18 years.30 However, alcohol is the most consumed drug in Australia,38 and it’s the drug most often used by under 18s.39
Findings from the 2017 Australian Secondary Students’ Alcohol and Drug (ASSAD) survey showed that 46% of 12-17-year-olds had drunk alcohol in the past year.29
While some young people are choosing to drink, and drinking in risky ways, fewer young people are drinking and those who do are starting later.13,38
Over the past 10 years, the proportion of people aged 14–17 who chose not to drink alcohol increased from 39% to 73%.40
The average age at which young people, aged 14–24, first tried alcohol has steadily risen from 14.7 years in 2001 to 16.2 years in 2019.40
While young people are less likely to drink alcohol than past generations, when they do, they are likely to drink to intoxication, resulting in injuries, alcohol poisoning and sometimes death.30
Research suggests that decreases in youth alcohol consumption may be connected to changes in Australian parents’ attitudes and reductions in providing alcohol.13,41
The ASSAD survey in 2017 showed that one-third (34%) of students aged 14–17 reported that they had never consumed alcohol.29 For people aged 18+, 11.4% have never consumed a full serve of alcohol and 9.3% had not consumed an alcoholic drink in the last 12 months.38
The earlier a young person is introduced to alcohol and the more frequently they drink, can increase the likelihood of them becoming dependent on alcohol later in life.8,33 A landmark study by Grant et al. (2001) found that for each year the onset of drinking was delayed, the odds of developing an alcohol use disorder later in life were reduced by 9%.42
There is an opportunity for LDATs to leverage the decreasing rates of adolescent drinking and the growing body of knowledge around what works in prevention, to empower parents and communities to further reduce the harms of alcohol to young people in Australia.
Young people are at greater risk of alcohol-related harm than adults
Adolescence and young adulthood is a particularly risky time to start drinking because the brain is undergoing substantial development.
In fact, many of the regions of the brain at this time are "particularly sensitive to even fairly low doses of alcohol."36
Younger people are particularly vulnerable to alcohol-related harms for several reasons:
• they are experiencing profound physical and emotional changes
• they are heavily influenced by role models
• they may engage in increased risk-taking
• their brain is still developing (the brain continues to develop until the age of 25) and is sensitive to even low amounts of alcohol.
Exposure to alcohol at a young age can adversely affect brain development and increase the risk that a young person never reaches their full potential.
Drinking alcohol can impact brain development up until the age of 25, resulting in affected attention, memory, and decision-making abilities.31,32
Drinking alcohol during adolescence can also increase the risk of problematic drinking in the future.36,43,44
Early drinking, even sips or tastes, is connected to earlier and more harmful patterns of alcohol consumption.4,43
Health effects of harmful alcohol use
In Australia, alcohol is the second leading cause of drug-related deaths and hospital admissions, after tobacco,40 and it is associated with a range of short and long term harms to the individual and others, as shown below.
Some harms are associated with drinking too much on one occasion and result in short-term effects (e.g. accidents, injuries, violence, unsafe sex and alcohol poisoning), while other harms are associated with regular drinking and result in long-term effects (e.g. liver problems, cancer and alcohol dependence).
Alcohol use has been linked to at least 60 diseases, including six different types of cancer and an increased risk of chronic disease and early death.34,45
How alcohol affects the developing brain
Harmful alcohol use health effects34
• verbal disputes
• motor vehicle injuries
• alcohol poisoning
• injuries from assault and domestic violence
• deliberate self-harm.
• cognitive impairment
• cardiovascular disease
• liver disease
• mental illness
The health effects of harmful alcohol use is particularly evident for young people
In Australia, over one in every 10 deaths (13%) of Australians aged between 14 and 17 is alcohol-related, and each week around five Australians aged 15-24 years die, with another 200 ending up in hospital, due to alcohol-related causes.46
Alcohol contributes to all the leading causes of death for young people: suicide, land transport accidents, accidental poisoning, and assault.45,47
In a 2016-17 survey of young Australians aged 14–19 years who were drinking at risky levels, 83% reported being injured as a result of that drinking in the past year.48
The major risks of drinking alcohol for young people include immediate problems such as:
• increased risk of experiencing an accident or injury, for example through road traffic accidents, falls, fires and drowning
• increased risk of sexually transmitted infections or unintended pregnancy
• increased chance of experiencing violence, for example getting into fights or being assaulted.46