McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

McMaster study provides more evidence of the link between alcohol and sports, but not drug use

Published: December 6, 2013
John Cairney
Dr. John Cairney, professor, Department of Family Medicine

It's no secret that teenage athletes brag that alcohol and beer go along naturally with their sports. Now, convincing research at McMaster University backs up their boasts.

After a review of published studies, researchers found that participation in sports raises the chance of adolescents and young adults abusing alcohol. And that abuse may continue long after their teenage years.

"Sport participation in the past was associated with increased alcohol use in the future — sometimes years into the future. The patterns that are established early can last well into a person's life," said John Cairney, professor of family medicine in the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine

However, he said, the findings are mixed — sports are associated with increased alcohol use, but decreased illicit drug use; marijuana use was less clear — some studies showed increased use, others did not.

The research was published in the November on-line edition of Addictive Behaviours found here:

At the request of the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (CCSA), Cairney and Cairney's team searched various databases for studies published between 1982 and 2012 that had followed people over time. All but one of the studies took place in the United States. "The lack of Canadian data is glaring and a really important gap in the science," Cairney said.

"We found quite a lot of evidence that participation in sport is associated with increased use of alcohol consumption for adolescents and young adults from 12-year-olds to those in their early twenties," said Cairney.  "Just as intriguing, is that sport is associated with lower illicit drug use. So, there is a mixed message to the potential benefits of sport."

Cairney said the many links between alcohol and sport in society may be part of the issue. From beer ads on televised sports events to acceptance of drinking as part of the sport experience is disconcerting — particularly if parents and coaches turn a blind eye to this behavior, he said. "This is potentially a problem and something we need to address."

He said he believes it is possible to design sports-based interventions for children and youth, and that are already organizations that use sport for positive youth wellness such as the Canadian Start2Finish program. This running-based program targets disadvantaged inner-city youth but also incorporates a reading program, with health and nutrition advice.

"Let's be intentional about how we use sport in a positive way and figure out a program that is sports-based that really does address the problems with alcohol and drug use as well," Cairney said.

"We need to understand what aspects of sport participation are most beneficial and design rigorous trials to see if sport interventions really can reduce or prevent drug use in youth."

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