Children should avoid alcohol completely before the age of 15 and not drink on more than one day a week before the age of 18, the Government's chief medical officer said yesterday.
At least 500,000 children aged 11-15 get drunk every month and the number has doubled since 1990, Sir Liam Donaldson said. Alcohol harms the developing brain, causing memory problems and difficulty with finding words. It also has damaging effects on hormone levels, bone density and growth.
In official guidance on drinking by young people, published today, following a public consultation earlier this year, Sir Liam said most parents backed his advice that avoiding alcohol completely before the age of 15 was the healthiest option.
He rejected as a “middle class obsession” the idea that younger children should be introduced to alcohol with an occasional glass of wine diluted with water or equivalent.
“There is no evidence to support the idea that you should wean children onto alcohol at an early age so they get used to it. The evidence shows that the earlier children are introduced to alcohol the more likely they are to get a taste for it and become binge drinkers as teenagers and heavy drinkers as adults,” Sir Liam said.
Ian Gilmour, president of the Royal College of Physicians and a prominent campaigner for greater restrictions on alcohol, said Sir Liam was taking an “understandably cautious” line on early drinking.
“In strong families with good parental support it is perfectly reasonable to introduce alcohol to children before the age of 15 in a controlled environment. as the French are traditionally supposed to do. But you cannot generalise”
Professor Gilmour, a liver specialist, said the way parents introduced their children to drink was key. “They should set an example. Saying ‘Don’t do as I do, do as I tell you,’ doesn’t work,” he said.
Chris Sorek, Chief Executive of alcohol awareness charity Drinkaware, said:
“The drinking culture in the UK is entrenched and many young people see drinking alcohol as a rite of passage. It’s imperative that from an early age, we start to educate children and young people about the dangers of alcohol misuse.”