Carly Gooding knows she drinks too much. Doctors say young females like her are now showing signs of cirrhosis

In an exclusive interview with The Independent on Sunday, Professor Ian Gilmore, liver specialist at the Royal Liverpool University Hospital, warned of a health "time bomb" among young women caused by soaring levels of alcohol consumption. Doctors are treating increasing numbers of women in their late teens and early twenties with alcohol-induced liver problems, he said.

And the nation's binge-drinking crisis has become so bad that cases of cirrhosis - once the preserve of serious, middle-aged alcoholics - are now "commonplace" among women in their late twenties, he added.

A recent study of pupils aged 11 to 15 showed that for the first time girls were as likely as boys to have drunk alcohol, and were drinking very similar amounts.

Health campaigners are increasingly concerned about the amount of alcohol that young women are consuming. A spokeswoman for Alcohol Concern, the national agency on alcohol misuse, said: "We have seen a big increase in the amount of alcohol that women drink over recent years. We are now seeing the knock-on effects of that as women are starting to experience serious health problems at a much younger age."

Professor Gilmore, the spokesman on alcohol for the Royal College of Physicians, said five years of concentrated binge drinking could lead to the development of cirrhosis. The Chief Medical Officer, Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, said cirrhosis rates among women aged between 35 and 44 have risen sevenfold since the 1970s.

The British Liver Trust echoed Professor Gilmore's warning. A spokeswoman for the trust said: "Up until very recently we were seeing people in their forties and fifties developing liver disease. Now it is people in their twenties and thirties. We were not getting 30-year-olds with cirrhosis 10 years ago. It is a growing, and very worrying, trend."

Typical of young women who drink copiously and regularly is Carly Gooding, 25, a sales assistant from Kent, who notches up 58 units a week - 44 more than the maximum 14 recommended by health professionals.

"Every night when I get home I will open a bottle of wine, but on a weekend I like to let my hair down," she said. "I have tried to cut down. This New Year I am going to. My skin is disgusting."

The availability and price of alcohol are to blame for Britain's cirrhosis rates, which are higher than anywhere else in Europe, said Professor Gilmore. "Alcohol has never been cheaper in real terms and it has never been more available," he said.

Changes in licensing laws, due to come into force on 24 November, will only lead to an increase in Britain's growing cirrhosis crisis, warned Martin Plant, professor of addiction studies at the University of the West of England. "The situation is bad, and it is getting worse. The prospect of extended liquor licensing hours is most unwelcome," he said.

At a conference in Bristol this week, Professor Plant will present evidence that extending licensing hours in different countries has had a damaging effect on public health. "Even if they are extended by as little as an hour, it drastically increases health problems," he said.

In Western Australia, bars that chose to open for one extra hour experienced a doubling of alcohol-related violence. In Iceland, the effect was so alarming the new law was rescinded.

The Government was "opening up a can of worms" by extending opening hours in pubs, clubs and off-licences, warned a spokesman for the British Liver Trust. "Young people now drink as much as possible in as short a time as possible," she said.

The new licensing laws will allow bars, clubs, off-licences and supermarkets to apply for a licence to serve alcohol for 24 hours a day. Doctors and health officials have warned that increased opening hours could lead to increased levels of drinking, and the Association of Chief Police Officers has called on the Government to delay implementation of the reforms.

Ministers argue that staggered closing times will lead to a decrease in alcohol-fuelled town-centre violence. They also claim that longer opening hours will lead to people taking more time over their drink rather than trying to fit in more rounds.

Doctors are concerned about the lack of research into alcohol-related disease. Professor Gilmore said it is "very hard" to get funding and called on the Government to invest in new studies.