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The Hidden Epidemic of Very Young Alcoholics

A Hidden Epidemic

The total number of underage drinkers has remained almost the same since the early 1990s — about 20 percent of eighth-graders and 58 percent of 12th-graders report being drunk at least once in their lives. But these statistics disguise an even more disturbing fact: Some studies show that kids who drink are starting earlier. Much earlier.

"A third of kids ages 12 to 17 had their first drink before 13," says Susan Foster, director of policy research for the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA). "That's about 6.4 million kids, many more than there have been historically. Very young drinkers are a huge concern."

No large, nationally representative studies specifically track drinking before age 12. But in a national survey conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan, a significant number of 13-year-old drinkers reported starting two years earlier, at age 11. At least one national study, sponsored by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, says that nearly 10 percent of 9-year-olds have had more than a sip of liquor — a finding that suggests that approximately 427,000 9-year-olds have tried alcohol. And some do more than try. "We've received calls from parents of kids as young as 8," says Cole Rucker, CEO and cofounder of Echo Malibu, a California residential treatment center. "Every year, alcohol use shows up in younger and younger kids."

Kids who start drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to have later problems with alcohol abuse than those who start drinking at 21, according to a long-term national survey by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Young drinkers may set themselves up for a host of other troubles, experts say, including abuse of different drugs; possible impairment of critical, developing brain areas; and accidents, suicides, and homicides. They're more likely to be the victims of a violent crime, and more likely to have unprotected sex, contract STDs, and get pregnant. And they are also four times more likely to be involved in car crashes than kids who don't drink at all, reports the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

How Kids Get Started

Where do kids that young get liquor? Many, like Mary, are supplied by older friends or siblings. Others live in households where little or no effort is made to keep alcohol out of kids' hands. In two nationwide surveys sponsored by the American Medical Association in 2005, underage drinkers (the study polled kids as young as 13) said they found it easy to obtain alcohol from an adult. Two-thirds said it was easy to get alcohol at home without their parents' finding out — and one-third said they could get it easily with their parents' knowledge.

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