Public Release: 

Smoking, Drinking, Drugs: The Younger They Start, The Harder It Is To Quit

Center for Advancing Health

Young people who experiment with tobacco, alcohol or illicit drugs at an early age are less likely to quit their habit than those who start later.

David J. DeWit, PhD, of the Addiction Research Foundation in London Ontario, and colleagues at McMaster University came to that conclusion after studying the drug use histories of 4,364 youngsters in Ontario, Canada who were surveyed in 1990-91.

Their results, published in the December 1997 issue of Health Education & Behavior, revealed that starting to smoke and to use drugs and alcohol begins earlier than previously reported, with some children taking their first drink as early as at 10 and 11, their first illicit use of prescribed drugs at 11, their first use of hallucinogens at age 12, and their first use of cocaine and crack at 15 and 16.

Overall, they report, the major risk period for beginning tobacco, alcohol or illegal drug use begins around age 12, peaks between 15 and 19, and is mostly over by age 22. For crack cocaine use, the risk begins at about age 15 and fluctuates to age 29.

The research team concluded that "knowing the exact ages when young people are at greatest risk of engaging in substance use and abuse is crucial for health and education experts to introduce prevention programs in a more timely fashion."

They urged that abuse-prevention programs for alcohol, prescribed drugs and hallucinogens begin as early as middle and late elementary school years. "Programs must ... be introduced in a more timely fashion, well in advance of periods in which the incidence of abusive consumption begins to escalate," they write.

"Our data revealed that age at onset of drug use was a strong correlate of young people's propensity to quit their drug habit," they write, noting that this was particularly true for marijuana users: nearly 60 percent of those who said they started using marijuana before age 15 were still doing so after eight years, but among those who started at 19 or older, only 20 percent were still users after 8 years. Among other findings:

  • Men were significantly more likely than women to begin drinking alcohol at an early age. At age 20, about 70 percent of the surveyed men but only half of the surveyed women were drinking alcohol regularly (12 or more drinks a year).
  • At every age, men were more likely than women to begin using marijuana, hashish and cocaine, and were significantly less likely to quit.

The research supports earlier work that identified an association between early age at onset of drug use and the development of drug-related problems later in life. The research was funded by the Addiction Research Foundation, an agency of the Province of Ontario.

Health Education & Behavior, a bimonthly peer-reviewed journal of the Society for Public Health Education (SOPHE), publishes research on critical health issues for professionals in the implementation and administration of public health information programs. SOPHE is an international, non-profit professional organization that promotes the health of all people through education. For additional information, contact Elaine Auld at (202) 408-9804.

Posted by the Center for the Advancement of Health ( For information about the Center, contact: Richard Hbert (

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