Knowing little noses

New Scientist, 06 May 2000

YOU may be able to hide it from your boss, but your kids can tell you've got a drink problem -- and it stinks. The children of alcoholics tend to hate the smell of alcohol, the meeting in Sarasota, Florida, heard.

Julie Mennella and Pamela Garcia of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia knew that babies whose parents are alcoholics react differently to toys scented with ethanol from babies whose parents don't abuse alcohol. To find out how older children felt about the odour of alcohol, they asked 150 children aged between 4 and 6 to sample some odours.

Bottles with likeable smells had to be given to Big Bird, the affable yellow Sesame Street character, whereas bottles containing bad smells had to be given to Oscar, a character who lives in a garbage can and likes foul-smelling things.

Meanwhile, the children's parents were asked to fill out a questionnaire. Some of the questions asked about drinking habits, to tease out drinkers who use alcohol to escape worries from happy, social drinkers.

Where neither parent had a drinking problem, 66 per cent of the children gave the beer-scented bottle to Big Bird, indicating that they quite liked its smell. In contrast, 74 per cent of children of problem drinkers gave Oscar their bottle, suggesting that they disliked it. Mennella says these stark group differences didn't emerge with other pleasant odours such as bubble gum and foul smells such as pyridine.

She thinks children are tapping into the emotional context in which they experience alcohol in the home. "Aversive learning about alcohol may be occurring at a younger age than previously thought," Mennella says. "And odours acquired early in life appear to be long lasting."