Aug. 31, 2007 -- The prime time to prevent child alcohol use is when kids are in fifth grade, according to a new report on underage drinking.
"Substantial numbers of children do in fact have experience with alcohol," warns researcher John Donovan, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh.
Donovan notes that while most children don't use alcohol on a regular basis, the number of children who use alcohol rises between grades four and six.
"This would suggest that primary preventive interventions for child alcohol use would be best targeted in fifth grade to reduce or delay this pattern of early onset," Donovan writes in September's edition of the journal Prevention Science.
Donovan gathered data from four U.S. surveys on children and alcohol ranging from the 1990s until 2005.
The most recent survey, conducted from 2004-2005 and including about 25,000 students, shows that about 7% of fourth-graders, more than 8% of fifth-graders, and about 13% of sixth-graders had drunk beer, liquor, or wine coolers in the past year.
An earlier survey from 1998 shows that among some 1,500 sixth-grade students, 62% of boys and 58% of girls said they had ever tasted alcohol.
About a third as many children reported having had "more than a sip" of alcohol in other surveys from the 1990s.
Few children in any of the surveys reported having any alcohol within the past month.
The surveys don't show the context in which those children drank alcohol. For instance, some kids may only have sipped wine in religious services or tasted alcohol at a wedding or during a family dinner.
But the take-home message, says Donovan, is not to wait until children are teens to talk to them about alcohol use.
There is a "misperception that few children drink ... hopefully, this review serves to dispel this perception," writes Donovan.