Parents who give their children a few sips of alcohol when they are young may be setting them on a path to drinking more when they are older, a study has found.
Research on the impact of parental supply of alcohol, to be presented today at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre symposium in Sydney, revealed that teenagers whose parents gave them alcohol in early adolescence were three times more likely to be drinking full serves by the time they were 16 than children in families who did not supply alcohol.
In one of the biggest studies of its kind, researchers followed nearly 2000 parent and child pairs for four years after recruiting Year 7 students from WA, NSW and Tasmania. About 500 families were from WA.
Chief researcher Richard Mattick said the results showed that contrary to many parents' opinions, supplying children with alcohol did not moderate their drinking. "What we found was that early parental supply of alcohol through school Years 7 to 9 was the single biggest predictor of drinking in Year 10," Professor Mattick said.
"It was more influential than family circumstances and issues, more influential than individual psychological risk factors and more influential than peers."
The study found that close to one in six 12-year-olds and 13-year-olds reported being given alcohol by their parents, with 14.8 per cent given a few sips and 1.5 per cent drinking a full serve.
By the time they were 15 or 16, more than one-third of the students were being given alcohol by their parents and 15 per cent were drinking full serves.
Professor Mattick said parents were the main supplier of alcohol to teens under 18.
"Many of these do so with the best of intentions - to introduce alcohol in a safe, supervised environment with the aim of moderating a child's drinking," Professor Mattick said.
Some parents also followed the so-called European model, which permits children to sip alcohol from a relatively young age, he added.
Fellow researcher Monika Wadolowski, who recently completed a PhD on aspects of the study, said parents could sanction drinking inadvertently by supplying alcohol.
National Drug Research Institute director Steve Allsop, who is based at Curtin University, said students from several public and private WA schools took part in the study.
"There is no evidence that giving alcohol to children has public health benefits," Professor Allsop said. "But there is evidence to suggest that it can contribute to risk."