The findings of a team at King's College London Institute of Psychiatry will raise concerns about the future of Britain's children, who are amongst the heaviest drinkers in Europe.
There are thought to be more than 800,000 children below the age of 15 who regularly drink and 9,000 children were in treatment programmes for drug abuse in England last year.
Over 1,000 three-year-old children were enrolled in this study and numerous follow-up assessments were made over the next 30 years including teachers reporting on behavioural problems such including fighting, bullying and telling lies.
Between 13 and 15 years old, they were asked about their frequency of exposure to drugs and alcohol during the past year and their lives were assessed at age 32.
The results, published in the journal Psychological Science, found that children who used drugs and alcohol before the age of 15 were two to three times more likely to become dependent on substances, contract sexual infections, drop out of school, have criminal records or an early pregnancy.
Lead researcher Candice Odgers said the findings show the effect is not that children with problems use drink and drugs earlier but that 'early substance use leads to significant problems in adolescents' future lives'.
"Even adolescents with no prior history of behavioural problems or family history of substance abuse problems were at risk for poor health outcomes if they used substances prior to age 15. Universal interventions are required to ensure that all children-not only those entering early adolescence on an at-risk trajectory-receive an adequate dose of prevention."
These findings are consistent with a growing body of evidence that early adolescence may be a sensitive time for exposure to alcohol and other drugs, she said.