Alcohol is a leading cause of harm among young people worldwide, yet there is a common belief among parents that giving alcohol to their adolescent children teaches responsible drinking and reduces the risk of alcohol misuse later in life. This common view is reflected in alcohol supply laws in Australia where it is illegal to sell alcohol to minors, but not illegal for parents to supply their children. However, far from parental supply protecting children from future harm, it appears quite the opposite is true.

Our research, recently published in the journal Addiction, followed adolescents from early adolescence into early adulthood, with seven yearly surveys on their alcohol use and a range of other related factors, such as who supplied them with alcohol and their peers’ use of alcohol. The research showed the following:

Parental supply of alcohol increases risk of adolescent binge drinking and alcohol-related harms

Parental supply of alcohol across adolescence saw greater risk of binge drinking and alcohol-related harms, with around a 50% increase in risk in the year after parental supply occurred, and around a 20% increase in risk two years after parental supply.

In addition, earlier initiation of parental supply increased risk of binge drinking and experiencing any alcohol-related harms, with the risk increasing around 10% for each year earlier that parental supply began. This mirrors other research which has shown that earlier initiation of alcohol use is associated with greater consumption of alcohol in late adolescence, as well as higher rates of binge drinking.

Parental supply of alcohol may not protect against more severe alcohol-related harms in later adulthood

There was weaker evidence that parental supply increased risk of more serious harms like alcohol use disorder symptoms. However, given that alcohol use disorder is relatively rare that early in adulthood, peaking in the mid 20s, it is possible that the increased risk of binge drinking and alcohol harm may lead to more severe harms later in adulthood. Nonetheless, while there was less evidence that parental supply increased the risk of alcohol use disorder, there was no evidence that parental supply was protective against alcohol use disorder.

Increasingly, evidence suggests that parental supply of alcohol should be avoided in adolescence

Our research contributes to a growing body of evidence that suggesting that parental supply of alcohol increases risk of harm, with no evidence for any protective effects. The results suggest that any parental supply of alcohol should be avoided, particularly in early adolescence.

This discussion is particularly relevant now, given that the Australian National Health and Medical Research Councilrecently released its updated guidelines on alcohol, which have a notably more cautious recommendation on the supply of alcohol to children. Where the previous recommendation was to avoid alcohol until age 15 and limit alcohol as much as possible until age 18, the revised guidelines recommend avoiding alcohol entirely until age 18.

Further research is needed to determine whether these findings are generalisable to countries other than Australia

There is still uncertainty about whether these findings generalise to other settings, outside of Australia. According to the OECD Health at a Glance Report 2019, alcohol consumption in Australia is relatively high, with Australians consuming 9.2 litres of alcohol on average in 2017 (similar to the United Kingdom at 9.7 litres/person), above average for OECD countries. According to the National Drug Strategy Household Survey, around a quarter of Australians age 14+ drank at risky levels at least monthly. Thus, the effects of parental supply may be linked to relatively harmful patterns of alcohol consumption in the population, rather than inherent risks of parental supply per se.

In summary, adolescents whose parents supply them with alcohol appear to have an increased risk of alcohol‐related harm compared with adolescents whose parents do not supply them with alcohol. This risk appears to increase with earlier initiation of supply. Our findings support the recent Australian government recommendation that any alcohol consumption in adolescence should be avoided.

Written by Philip Clare, biostatistician at The National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, UNSW Sydney.

All IAS Blogposts are published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Alcohol Studies.