One in 25 Canadians aged 12 to 14 binge drank in the last year, according to a recent study.
These findings were based on Statistics Canada's 2005 Canadian Community Health Survey, which included responses from 6,172 middle schoolers (grades 6 to 8). Binge drinking was more likely in whites, poorer adolescents, children with several chronic health conditions and mood disorders compared with their peers.
Robert Mann researches alcohol and drug problems and the factors that increase and decrease them at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. Mann thinks that binge drinking in youth is a very significant public health issue that deserves attention.
"We know that alcohol is the number one contributing cause of death in this age group," he said.
Esme Fuller-Thomson, a professor at the University of Toronto's Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and the study's lead author, said "there needs to be more enforcement of the laws about providing minors with alcohol, and more awareness that it's not just 'kids will be kids,' that there's very serious consequences."
But, opinions differ about how big a deal this is. Michelle Jackson, 37, from Collingwood, Ont., binge drank as an adolescent. "It was just what we did. We liked to party, it was fun. We knew it was not permitted so that made it more exciting," she said.
Now, a happy mother of 9-year-old twin girls, Jackson is also a successful esthetician. "People can have a good time as teenagers and still turn into decent, contributing members of society," she said.
A person who holds parties for minors where alcohol is present is liable for any crimes and injuries related to alcohol consumption, and may face criminal charges or be sued.
"Parents need to be aware that they have a big responsibility not only to their own children, but to other children if they're thinking about providing alcohol and/or unmonitored parties," said Fuller-Thomson.
Binge drink goal 'is to get drunk'
Binging is considered five or more drinks at one sitting. This behaviour is concerning because children this young are extremely vulnerable. "This is not sipping. The purpose of drinking five drinks in a night is to get drunk," said Fuller-Thomson.
According to the Toronto District School Board, "healthy living" is part of the grade 9/10 curriculum. Topics include "healthy growth and sexuality," "substance use and abuse," "personal safety and injury prevention" and "healthy eating."
Fuller-Thomson believes hazardous drinking needs attention much earlier on. "Pediatricians need to be thinking about [binge drinking] and screening for it."
Although only four per cent of 12- to 14-year-olds binge drank, this increases to 17 per cent (boys) and 11 per cent (girls) in high school.
"There's a trajectory out of middle school as you go towards high school, and I'm very concerned [about it]," said Fuller-Thomson.
Research indicates that if you start drinking before you're 15, you have four times the risk of developing a drinking problem as an adult.
On Monday, the World Health Organization said more needs to be done to protect populations from the harmful health consequences of alcohol consumption. In a report, the UN health agency noted that 18 per cent of Canadians age 15 and older binge drink. The WHO's definition includes one more standard drink than what Fuller-Thomson used.
There are other consequences associated with binge drinking — accidents, the toxic effects of having this much alcohol in your system, and even death from choking on your vomit.
"Certainly, they're much more vulnerable for unprotected sex, teenage pregnancy [and] rape," said Fuller-Thomson.
Why is this happening?
Experts say a big part of the problem is the message that media and society are sending to young people.
"These kids are drinking for a purpose, and they think it's cool. We need to know a little bit more about how they perceive getting drunk as being socially acceptable or cool, [and] what the media and advertising messages that they're exposed to are doing to influence that," said Fuller-Thomson.
Children who are depressed and/or suffering from serious health conditions are at an even greater risk for binge drinking, and may be using alcohol to control their pain, or to gain social acceptability.
"The fact that those who have chronic health conditions and mood disorders or depression are much more likely to binge drink, imply that pediatricians need to be monitoring it, but also family members," said Fuller-Thomson.
Policy on minors and alcohol
It's illegal to buy alcohol for a minor. Under the Liquor Licence Act, anyone who does faces up to one year in jail, and a maximum fine of $200,000.
While this study, published in the IRSN Public Health Journal last week, is based on data from 2005, these patterns don't change that quickly.
"It might change by half a percent or something like that one way or the other, but I wouldn't expect it to be dramatically different [in 2014]," said Fuller-Thomson.