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

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

    Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

    Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

    £70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - SQL Server, T-SQL

    £28000 - £32000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

    Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Data Analyst (SQL Server, T-SQL, data)

    £28000 - £32000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst...

    Day In a Page

    Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

    Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

    Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
    General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

    All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

    The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
    How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

    How Etsy became a crafty little earner

    The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
    Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

    King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

    Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
    Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

    Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

    The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
    Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

    Don't fear the artichoke

    Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
    11 best men's socks

    11 best men's socks

    Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
    Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

    Paul Scholes column

    Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
    Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
    London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

    Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

    Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
    Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

    Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

    Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
    Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

    Khorasan is back in Syria

    America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
    General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

    On the campaign trail with Ukip

    Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
    Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

    Expect a rush on men's tights

    Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions
    Peter Kay's Car Share: BBC show is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade

    In the driving seat: Peter Kay

    Car Share is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade. The programme's co-creator Paul Coleman reveals the challenges of getting the show on the road