Brain behaviour - Dangerous measures

Giving children a nip of drink at home is not the way forward, despite your good intentions. Aric Sigman pours over the evidence

Aric Sigman

By the time you get around to reading this, it is likely that you will be in the midst of the holiday season and even more familiar than usual with "the Devil's buttermilk", or alcohol. As an American who has visited many different cultures, it's clear to me that drinking occupies a special cultural place in Britain. For many communities, the pub has been treated as the sitting room of the neighbourhood, where children are welcome.

Even underage teens go into a pub by themselves and sit and drink soft drinks. In addition, there is a belief that the early "responsible" introduction to drinking at home will in some way prevent heavy drinking later. And because drinking is such an integral part of adult life, we are uneasy when this comfortable, "sensible" view of drinking is turned upside down and challenged.

A new crop of studies is doing exactly this, and you may need a stiff drink before you continue reading. Recent comparative studies are finding that British children are more likely to get drunk than those of any other country.

Child alcoholics are a growing problem, with an increasing number being treated in hospital every day for alcohol-related illnesses, including mental disorders and liver disease.

Professor Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians, has described this trend as: "a staggering rise and it is only the tip of the iceberg". He says: "The younger they drink, the more likely they are to have alcohol-related problems later in life. It is now commonplace to see men and women in their twenties with end-stage alcoholic liver damage."

A new paper in the British Journal of Psychiatry reports that urgent action is needed to prevent "an under-recognised, alcohol-related ... dementia time bomb", facing young drinkers. A study in The Lancet ranking 20 of Britain's most popular drugs places alcohol at number five among the most dangerous substances, far higher than ecstasy, LSD, solvents, amphetamines and cannabis (Nutt et al, 2007).

Despite these reports, a myth persists that introducing children under 16 to small amounts of alcohol at home prevents heavy drinking and alcoholism later. But exposure to alcohol at an early age is more likely to increase a child's likelihood of becoming a heavy drinker. While many believe that children benefit from the role modelling and restraint displayed at the family dinner table, they have not considered the biochemical processes at work.

A new study from the US government's National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism examined the history of 22,000 adults and found that having a first taste of alcohol before the age of 15 sharply increases "the risk of alcohol use disorders that persist into adulthood ... early alcohol consumption itself, as a misguided choice or decision, is driving the relationship between early drinking and risk for development of later alcohol problems". The researchers believe it is important to delay the "age of first drink" as late as possible (Dawson et al, 2008).

A young brain is malleable and changes quickly in response to new influences and it's suspected that early exposure to alcohol may "prime" the brain to enjoy alcohol by creating a link between alcohol and pleasurable reward.

The damage now known to be caused by an early start to drinking explains the minimum age of 18 for buying and consuming alcohol in pubs and bars in the UK and recent moves by many states in the US to raise the drinking age from 18 to 21.

The myth of the benefits of the continental approach to introducing children gradually to alcohol is a "huge obstacle" to overcome, says a new study commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

"The misperceptions are firmly based on opinion rather than from health statistics about mainland Europe. Parents ... are searching for any logic that helps them maintain their drinking while protecting their children."

In fact, as a European Commission fact sheet pointed out in 2006, France's death rate from cirrhosis of the liver is twice that of the UK and "Liver cirrhosis is caused by long-term excessive drinking by individuals, regardless of their drinking patterns."

The point is that while binge drinking may be one particularly antisocial British route to health damage, even the slow stylish continental way will get you there. The organisation Alcohol Concern has called for parents who give alcohol to children aged under 15 to be prosecuted.

Parents and schools need to be aware that their favourite drug and social lubricant may have new-found consequences when their children enjoy it. Teachers should now be especially aware of where their information about alcohol education comes from. There are bodies that appear to be impartial, but are funded by the drinks industry, and they're well-versed in the comfy-speak of "teaching children sensible drinking" or "responsible drinking".

Isn't it interesting that we don't recommend early sensible dope smoking to prevent later drug abuse, early cigarette smoking to prevent later nicotine addiction, or early sexual encounters to prevent pregnancy? Yet when it comes to our logic regarding introducing children to alcohol, we seem to be thinking under the influence of the Devil's buttermilk.

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Aric Sigman

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