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Researchers found that 37 percent of kids in one Pennsylvania county had sipped alcohol by second grade, and two-thirds had tasted it by age 12.
Childhood exposure to alcohol is concerning because other research has suggested that sipping or tasting at a young age leads to early drinking, said study leader John Donovan, an associate professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
"Our earlier research found that childhood sipping predicts early initiation of drinking -- drinking by age 14 or younger," he said.
For the study, published online June 11 in the Journal of Adolescent Health, the researchers collected data at 14 time points from about 450 children living in Allegheny County from ages 8 through 18.
Children were asked how old they were when they first tasted or sipped alcohol, when they first had a drink, and when they first had three or more drinks on the same occasion or got drunk. They also were asked if they had experienced problems such as hangovers or passing out.
The results: By age 14, three-quarters said they had sipped alcohol, 19 percent reported drinking and 3 percent reported binge-drinking (downing three or more drinks on one occasion). Two percent said they had been drunk.
By age 18, nearly all -- 96 percent -- had sipped or tasted alcohol, while almost 78 percent reported drinking and nearly one-third reported two or more alcohol-related problems.
Whether a youngster who tastes his dad's beer is doomed to abuse alcohol isn't spelled out in this study, but the authors suggested that pediatricians might want to discourage parents from such practices.
Ethnic differences emerged in the study, which was supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Only 18 percent of black children had tried alcohol by age 8, while 44 percent of children of European-American descent had a taste by that age.
Donovan said that discrepancy has been found in other research. He believes that stronger parental disapproval and more emphasis on religion are two factors behind the lower sipping rate among black children.
The findings may not apply to the larger U.S. population, since only residents of one county were polled, and few Hispanic or Asian families were included, Donovan said. Also, the study relied on self-reported information, which might not be totally accurate.
Still, another expert expressed concern about the findings.
"The numbers are troubling but not that surprising," said Dr. Marc Galanter, director of the division of alcoholism and drug abuse at the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. Galanter was not involved in the study.
"Much of this is certainly cultural," he said of the early alcohol exposure. "Drinking in some families is normal, even for young kids, in certain ethnic and cultural groups." Those include southern European families, he said.
What's the best advice for parents based on the research?
"As a generality, it's better not to encourage the onset of drinking at an earlier age," Galanter said. "Later onset of exposure to alcohol is associated with less alcohol problems."
Donovan said more research is needed to better understand what effect tasting alcohol in childhood might have on later drinking habits.
"There are a number of longitudinal studies that have established that adolescents whose parents allowed them to drink at home were at significantly greater risk for binge drinking and alcohol problems later in adolescence," Donovan said.
"[However], we don't yet have that kind of evidence with respect to child sipping at home," he said.
"All we can say at present is that kids who have sipped by age 10 are nearly twice as likely to start drinking by age 14 or younger, and that such early drinking has been shown to increase their likelihood of involvement in other problem behaviors in adolescence and in young adulthood," he said.
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