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Problems in later life caused by regular teen drinking and the need to change the ''way we deal with alcohol as a society'' have been highlighted in a large transtasman study.
Researchers say the report provides the most robust evidence to date of causal links between regular teen drinking before age 17 and drug and alcohol problems in later life.
One of the study authors, Joe Boden of the University of Otago's Christchurch campus, says regular early drinking before the age of 17 should no longer be dismissed as a harmless ''rite of passage''.
Adolescents who drink weekly before age 17 are up to three times more likely as adults to binge drink, drink-drive, be alcohol-dependent, and use other drugs than their non-drinking young peers, the new research shows.
The study involved 9000 young Australians and New Zealanders from age 13 to 30.
Associate Prof Boden is one of the researchers involved in the university's Christchurch Health and Development Study, and more than 1000 participants in that study contributed to the findings.
He says the study provides robust evidence for policymakers, health promoters, and parents, and says there is a need to take specific steps to counter this big societal and health problem.
''This really underlines the need for change in the way we deal with alcohol as a society,'' Prof Boden said in an interview.
More restrictions on alcohol availability, including lifting the minimum drinking age, and reducing alcohol advertising and banning alcohol sponsorship, were needed to counter the problems.
One of the big problems was the excessively easy availability of relatively cheap beer and wine through supermarkets.
But some success had been achieved in reducing alcohol availability, including in Invercargill, where off-licence availability of alcohol had been significantly reduced.
Otago researchers worked with others from the Universities of New South Wales, Melbourne, and Queensland on the study, and results were published recently in the international journal Addiction.
The study also found frequency of drinking was as important as how much was drunk, in terms of the link to problems later in life.
The findings suggested that delaying when teens start drinking regularly could have significant benefits to individuals, families and society as a whole.
Prof Boden said the research highlighted several areas for possible reform of alcohol laws and policies, in particular proposals to increase the minimum purchase age, and reducing the ''anytime anywhere'' availability of alcohol in many parts of New Zealand.
Prof Boden said a surprising finding of the study was that there were no direct associations between adolescent drinking and negative psycho-social outcomes such as sexual risk-taking, early parenthood and mental health problems.