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In the UK, the legal drinking age at home is 5 years, and a significant proportion of parents here and in other European countries allow and even encourage their young adolescents to drink alcohol, believing that it will teach them responsible use or inoculate them against harmful drinking and dependency.
The attitudes, practices and policies regarding alcohol initiation and consumption by children and parents across the world today may contribute to a broad range of negative health outcomes throughout a child’s lifespan, much of which are preventable, starting from childhood.1
Neuroadaptations, neoplastic transformations
For example, delaying the age at which children and young people take their first drink, including small sips, may lower their risk of becoming problem drinkers now and later in life.1–3 Also, the mechanisms are becoming clearer: preclinical research suggests that introducing children and adolescents to alcohol may sensitise the neurocircuitry of addiction by inducing neuroadaptations in brain regions involved in reward and addiction. A study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences recently reported that a single-dose exposure to ethanol in young adolescent mice ‘causes acute and lasting neuronal changes in the brain… induces plastic changes which in turn could contribute to the basis of ethanol dependence’.4 Adolescent alcohol exposure may also lead to changes in gene expression that could influence drinking behaviour in adulthood.5
Even at low levels of consumption, alcohol intake in adolescence, a stage when breast tissue is most susceptible to neoplastic transformation, may increase later risks of breast cancer. A recent large-scale British study concluded that …
Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.
Competing interests None declared.
Provenance and peer review Commissioned; externally peer reviewed.