Is there a ‘low-risk’ drinking level for youth? The risk of acute harm as a function of quantity and frequency of drinking

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Introduction and Aims.

Drinking guidelines have rarely provided recommendations for different age groups despite evidence of significant age effects on alcohol consumption and related risks. This study attempted to quantify the degree of risk associated with lower levels of consumption for people under 25 years of age, with the broader purpose of informing the development of Canadian low-risk drinking guidelines.

Design and Methods.

A random community-based sample of 540 youth aged 16–23 (54.4% female) completed an interview concerning alcohol consumption patterns and a broad range of acute health and social harms. Logistic regression analyses were designed to test whether there were discernible thresholds of risk as a function of both gender and age.


A significant proportion of young people consumed in excess of adult drinking limits recommended by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) to minimise risk of alcohol-related harm. Compared with abstainers, rates of reported harm increased linearly with increasing frequency and quantity levels. However, problems were most strongly associated with consumption in excess of two drinks per occasion and a frequency of more than once a week. No independent effects of age or gender were identified.

Discussion and Conclusions.

The CAMH guidelines for adult drinkers do not adequately address acute risks for young people. More specific guideline recommendations for young people could be considered with a more prominent focus on drinking quantity (one to two drinks per occasion), and a recommended frequency of consumption (once a week).[Thompson KD, Stockwell T, MacDonald S. Is there a ‘low-risk’ drinking level for youth? The risk of acute harm as a function of quantity and frequency of drinking. Drug Alcohol Rev 2012;31:184–193]

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