Children & alcohol: Britain's deadly cocktail

Figures show a 40 per cent rise in the number of under-age drinkers in treatment in just one year – and experts say that hard-living celebrities are bad role models. By Jonathan Owen

Record numbers of children are in treatment for alcohol abuse. Britain's drinking culture, combined with the sheer availability and affordability of alcohol, is taking a heavy toll of those most vulnerable to its effects.

An investigation by The Independent on Sunday has discovered that children as young as 10 are spending up to three years in treatment, ranging from residential rehabilitation to specialist counselling.

The new statistics, obtained from the National Treatment Agency, and published for the first time by the IoS, reveal a devastating picture of Britain's young people and children suffering from alcohol-related illness and self-destruction.

The number of under-18s in alcohol treatment programmes has soared by 40 per cent, from 4,781 in 2006 to 6,707 in 2007. The findings reveal the highest increases have been among 12- to 14-year-olds, up 62 per cent from 592 to 953.

Meanwhile, thousands of youngsters continue to be admitted to hospital each year for serious illnesses usually expected in ageing alcoholics: children aged 16 or under hospitalised due to drink have risen by a third in the past decade – from 3,870 in 1995/6 to 5,281 in 2005/6.

Health professionals are particularly concerned about the number of young girls drinking excessively and requiring treatment. Girls accounted for just under 60 per cent of all hospital admissions for alcohol.

Health professionals look with concern at the antics of high-profile figures who appear to glamorise excessive boozing. Daily coverage of celebrities such as Amy Winehouse, Girls Aloud's Sarah Harding and Lily Allen looking worse for wear does nothing to help matters, particularly among impressionable young girls. Professor Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said: "Even I've heard of Amy Winehouse. Clearly it's highly inappropriate for young pop stars, looked upon as role models by young people, to be celebrating or boasting about their misuse of alcohol, and the 'Amy Winehouse factor' isn't helping the situation."

Girls are particularly vulnerable to the effects of alcohol, adds Professor Gilmore: "We know girls' bodies are more sensitive to the effects of alcohol than boys. Unless we can stop this heavy drinking culture among young girls, we're more likely to see women with serious liver disease at a younger age in the future."

Professor Roger Williams, director of the Institute for Hepatology, University College London, and physician for the late George Best, said: "Many young people say that they drink and feel perfectly fine, but they need to realise that the damage done by drinking is progressive. The number of under-18s admitted to hospital has gone up 15 per cent over the past decade, and deaths from cirrhosis are rising in younger age groups, with people in their 20s and 30s now being treated for liver failure."

Alarming as the latest statistics are, health campaigners describe them as a mere indication of the true picture. "This is the tip of the iceberg. There are more than 800,000 children below the age of 15 drinking regularly in the UK," said Frank Soodeen from Alcohol Concern. "Many of the young people who drink at hazardous levels require a depth of support that is simply not available in the current system. There are fewer than 150 residential detox beds available for under-18s, with much of that capacity provided by the private sector."

Continued price promotions, combined with a rise in incomes, means that alcohol has never been more affordable. And the explosion in child drinkers is being fuelled by a culture of drinking to get drunk, experts claim. " Of 15-year-olds, nearly two-thirds have drunk in the past four weeks, and around one in seven of those drinkers consumed enough to vomit. The reality is that about 30 per cent of all 15-year-olds think it is OK to get drunk once a week," said Professor Mark Bellis from the North West Public Health Observatory, and the Government's lead adviser on alcohol. "We need to tackle a youth culture in which drunkenness is commonplace, underage access to alcohol relatively easy and alternatives to drinking far too scarce."

The issue of young people and drink will be the focus of Alcohol Concern's annual conference on Wednesday, where calls will be made on the Government to set up a regulatory watchdog to force the drinks industry to do more to curb under-age sales of alcohol and help to stem the rising tide of teen drinkers. In a new report, the charity will call on the drinks industry not to advertise on television before 9pm. They say an independent regulatory body to police the drinks industry would result in a reduction in the amount of alcohol that continues to be sold to under-age drinkers. In addition, the report will call on the Government to set aside £1.6bn – 10 per cent of tax revenues from alcohol – to tackle the crisis.

Although still in its infancy, there are already 3,000 premises licensed for 24-hour drinking. Government thinking on 24-hour drinking is being reviewed amid fears that the promotion of cheap alcohol is leading to more alcohol abuse, and a report due out next summer will look at ways of controlling the activities of drinks companies.

British teenagers, along with those in Ireland and Denmark, are among the heaviest teenage drinkers in Europe. They are more likely to drink to get drunk and suffer from alcohol abuse than their European counterparts. One in four young people drink in parks or on street corners and there was a sharp increase of 77 per cent in the number of 16- to 17-year-olds being drunk and disorderly between 2004 (1,328 cases) and 2005 (2,354 cases).

Unable to work due to developing a drink problem when just 16, David James (not his real name) was one such statistic. He was repeatedly arrested for being drunk and disorderly, with his descent into alcoholism having begun when he left home at 16; he drank as a way to fit in with those around him. "Within months I was drinking five or six litres of cider every day. It was strong and only cost me £6 so I could afford it without a job," he said. "I wasn't old enough to be buying it myself so my friends would get it for me, but by the age of 17 I was getting served in shops as well. By this time I needed to drink was soon as I woke up. Otherwise the shaking and sweats wouldn't go away."

Desperate to stop drinking, the teenager from High Wycombe began seeing a counsellor through the Addaction charity last year. Now 19, he admitted that it is a daily struggle. "I'm talking about my problems rather than just drinking, though I still need a strong lager as soon as I wake up, but I'm down to five or six cans," he said. "I really want to stop and have a normal life. I want to get a job, sort things out with my family, find a stable place to live and a girlfriend, but it's hard. I still can't stop drinking completely and just wish I'd never started."

Despite protestations that local authorities have clamped down hard, the selling of alcohol to children remains widespread. Prosecutions at magistrates' courts for selling alcohol to children rose fivefold from 198 in 1995 to 1,084 in 2005. And there has been an explosion in the numbers of penalty notices issued for underage sales of alcohol – from 113 in 2004 to 2,058 in 2005.

The crisis has gone to the top of the political agenda, with the Prime Minister having described his concern over teenagers that drink, saying: "Binge-drinking and under-age drinking that disrupt neighbourhoods are unacceptable." He has warned that shops persisting in selling alcohol to children will lose their licences; he also urges councils to ban alcohol in trouble spots and calls on the industry "to do more to advertise the dangers of teenage drinking".

In 2003/04, a total of £217m was being invested in alcohol treatment and 63,000 people were receiving treatment for alcohol-related disorders. But this is a tiny fraction of the million alcoholics in Britain, not to mention more than eight million people who drink above sensible levels.

A Department of Health spokesperson said: "We have invested significantly in young people's substance misuse services through a ring-fenced local partnership grant – £24.7m for 2007/08 – and we are determined to go further by reducing the harm caused to young people by alcohol and educating young people and their parents on the very real harm it causes."

The stakes could not be higher, said Professor Williams. "The health consequences are simply too serious to be ignored."

The schoolgirl: 'When you start drinking you forget about the bad things'

"I started drinking when I was about 11 or 12," says Kayleigh from Esher, Surrey. "I had older friends who used to drink and it went from there. I was drinking beer, cider and bottles of wine and I used to drink about three times a week. It's too easy for children to get hold of – adults always have it in their house."

Alcoholism came early for the schoolgirl. Now 18, she knows only too well the addictive and damaging effects of drink. Her formative years were spent as a heavy drinker, turning up at school either hung-over or drunk, to the distress of her teachers. After her mother died three years ago, from deep vein thrombosis, Kayleigh's drinking became even worse. Living with a foster family, she started to drink almost every day, sometimes even stealing drink from shops to feed her addiction. "When you first start drinking, there is a buzz and you forget about the bad things. You just don't care about them any more, you're not so scared."

Kayleigh started counselling this April and now visits a weekly drugs and alcohol clinic run by young persons' charity Rainer.

"It all depends on whether you want to get better. They can't make you do it; they can only advise and help you."

Paul Bignell

To have your say on this or any other issue visit www.independent.co.uk/IoSblogs

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