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A survey from a team of Ontario researchers suggests even modest amounts of alcohol consumption during someone’s high school years can lead to more problematic drinking habits.

Four scholars at the University of Waterloo surveyed more than 19,000 high school students in Ontario and Alberta over two academic years starting in 2013.

They tracked the teens’ self-reported drinking and smoking habits and published the results in the journal Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention.

The researchers found that students classified as periodic drinkers had a tendency to progress to regular or heavy drinking within a year, compared to heavier drinkers whose alcohol consumptions patterns were more likely to stay stable.

Researchers found only one per cent of those periodic drinkers were able to scale back their alcohol consumption, compared to higher rates for regular or heavy drinkers.

The researchers say heavier alcohol use is also strongly correlated with increased use of tobacco or cannabis products, adding their collective findings point to a need for more aggressive interventions specifically targeting young teens.

“If we work on the early stages like periodic drinkers, we not only prevent kids from the harms from alcohol but also maybe other substances,” said Mahmood Gohari, post-doctoral public health researcher and study co-author.

Gohari said the study examined the drinking habits of students in grades 9 through 12 during the 2013 and 2014 academic years in both provinces.

He said that rates of alcohol abstinence were higher than 60 per cent in all grades, but those who were consuming alcohol showed a number of troubling patterns.

Gohari said researchers found that periodic drinking among the teens, or having between one and three drinks a month, was a better predictor of heavier drinking patterns than other factors such as age, gender or ethnicity.

Periodic drinkers also showed less likelihood of decreasing their alcohol consumption compared to those who were having booze on a weekly or daily basis.

And once students progressed to heavy or regular drinking levels, Gohari said the likelihood of other risky behaviour increased. Students in those groups were more likely to binge drink, or consume more than five drinks in a single sitting.

He said the likelihood of smoking cigarettes or using cannabis products also rose in those who were drinking regularly.

While the findings highlight the need for early interventions, Gohari said a specific type of program has the highest chance of curbing unhealthy behaviours.

“If we want to work on maybe lowering the consumption of alcohol, we need to work on other substances as well,” he said. “Programs that work on all substances are more likely to be efficient.”

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