The prospective association between sipping alcohol by the sixth grade and later substance use

J Stud Alcohol Drugs. 2015 Mar;76(2):212-21. doi: 10.15288/jsad.2015.76.212.


Objective: Although there is a clear association between early use of alcohol and short- and long-term adverse outcomes, it is unclear whether consumption of minor amounts of alcohol (less than a full drink) at a young age is prognostic of risk behaviors in later adolescence.

Method: Data were taken from 561 students enrolled in an ongoing prospective web-based study on alcohol initiation and progression (55% female; 25% White non-Hispanic). Based on a combination of monthly and semiannual surveys, we coded whether participants sipped alcohol before sixth grade and examined associations between early sipping and alcohol consumption by fall of ninth grade, as well as other indices of problem behavior. Participants also reported on the context of the first sipping event.

Results: The prevalence of sipping alcohol by fall of sixth grade was 29.5%. Most participants indicated that their first sip took place at their own home, and the primary source of alcohol was an adult, usually a parent. Youth who sipped alcohol by sixth grade had significantly greater odds of consuming a full drink, getting drunk, and drinking heavily by ninth grade than nonsippers. These associations held even when we controlled for temperamental, behavioral, and environmental factors that contribute to proneness for problem behavior, which suggests that sipping is not simply a marker of underlying risk.

Conclusions: Our findings that early sipping is associated with elevated odds of risky behaviors at high school entry dispute the idea of sipping as a protective factor. Offering even just a sip of alcohol may undermine messages about the unacceptability of alcohol consumption for youth.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Alcohol Drinking / epidemiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Prevalence
  • Prospective Studies
  • Risk-Taking
  • Schools
  • Students / statistics & numerical data*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / epidemiology*