Special report: Under-age drinking (U.K.)

Independent Online Edition >England is also experiencing problems with underage drinking. In England 18 year olds can purchase alcohol and 16 year olds can drink alcohol in s restaurant, if the alcohol was purchased by a parent.

Amid growing concerns over 24-hour drinking, soaring rates of liver disease and police forces unable to cope with drunken disturbances on the streets, an exclusive Independent on Sunday investigation today reveals the dramatic rise in children admitted to hospital because of alcohol-related illnesses.

The biggest increase is seen among girls under 16 years old, with a 25 per cent increase between 2002/03 and 2004/05. And the problem is getting worse: hospital admissions for under-18s are at their highest since records began, and the average amount children are drinking every week has doubled since 1990.

Professor Mark Bellis, director of the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University and a government adviser on alcohol-related issues, said: “The numbers of underage drinkers in hospital for alcohol-related conditions are substantial but it is only the tip of the iceberg. Many more children are admitted for problems not recorded as alcohol. The admissions include everything from being involved in violence to teenage pregnancies. For every one youth admitted due to alcohol consumption there are many more whose health suffers through excessive alcohol consumption.”

The ages of children admitted to hospital for alcohol-related problems are getting lower. The number of eight-year-old-boys who drink has doubled from 5 per cent in 1995 to 10 per cent in 2005. The number of 11-year-old girls who drink has increased from 15 per cent in 1995 to 25 per cent in 2005. Many experts believe country is in the grip of a hidden epidemic – one that, like alcoholics themselves, the country is in denial about.

Last year police introduced exclusion zones around the beaches of Polzeath and Rock after residents complained of underage drinking and fighting. Dubbed the “Costa del Sloane”, the beaches are a magnet for children from public schools.

A senior policeman with Devon and Cornwall constabulary also spoke out about the underage drinking culture after a mob of 100 youths – some as young as 12 – were caught at a mass boozing session in Falmouth.

The startling rise in underage drinking is already beginning to have repercussions on public health and will continue to do so for future generations unless something is done to curb the alcohol consumption of British children, campaigners say.

Frank Soodeen of the charity Alcohol Concern said: “A recent government report on alcohol-related deaths showed that the biggest group was men and women aged 35-54 – which is far younger than ever before. Clearly it’s beginning to catch up at an earlier stage, which is very worrying. Generally the highest proportion a few years ago was well above that age group.”

The most serious of these health problems is liver cirrhosis. People in their 20s and 30s are now ending up with serious liver problems which, until recently, were normally seen in people twice those ages.

Professor Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians and a liver specialist at the Royal Liverpool Hospital, said: “Cirrhosis of the liver has increased tenfold since the 1970s. There is a big concern about the rise in deaths from cirrhosis among young people. I think we are going to see big increases in people in their 20s and 30s being diagnosed with liver cirrhosis.”

David Mayer, chair of the UK Transplant Liver Advisory Group, warned that young drinkers are storing up a problem for the future and are likely to require his services in years to come. “People have more money and more opportunity to drink from an earlier age and therefore their livers are exposed to chronically high alcohol levels. We are concerned that it’s becoming an epidemic. It does take many years to develop cirrhosis, but if you start drinking at an early age you are going to see problems sooner rather than later.”

With such a marked increase in child drinking, campaigners are furious over the lack of provision offered to young people such as Hayley in helping to tackle their problems. There are even calls for drying-out clinics to be set up specially for young people.

But Professor Bellis argues that we need to help children long before it reaches that stage. “Waiting until children develop alcohol problems means their health, their education and ultimately their life prospects have already begun to suffer. We need a major shift in our national attitudes towards alcohol.”

Caroline Flint, the public health minister, last week claimed that the Government is tackling the problem through “targeted enforcement” – reducing sales to under-18s by bars, off-licences and retailers – as well as education on substance abuse.

But campaigners blame the drinks industry for promoting alcohol as “sexy” to the young. Mr Soodeen said: “The drinks industry plays a big part in the whole issue. We really need to be cutting off the supply to young people. Unfortunately, the drinks industry has been very effective in persuading the Government that a ‘voluntary health’ approach is the way forward. We find it odd that so much of the packaging on alcopops seems juvenile and the alcohol industry has yet to come up with a credible explanation.”

[via: Alcohol and Drugs History Society]