Huge increase in secret teenage drinking

n A quarter drink every week n Consumption up 40 per cent n Concern at parental apathy. Emma Cook reports
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YOUNG PEOPLE are drinking more than ever, a new report reveals. In the week that a 14-year-old Millfield schoolgirl fell to her death after bingeing on vodka, a report published by the Schools Health Education Unit at the University of Exeter showed that consumption among young teenagers has increased by more than 40 per cent in the past five years.

Based on responses from more than 400,000 pupils between the ages of eight and 18, their Health Related Behaviour Questionnaire revealed that 15 and 16-year-olds consume on average an extra three units per week compared with 1993. For boys it has risen from seven to 10 and for girls, five to eight.

The survey also found that a third of 14 to 15-year-olds drink at home without their parents always knowing.

"When you go along to the local parents' evening and tell them that about a quarter of young teenagers have had a drink in the last week their hair stands on end," said Dr David Regis, researcher on the project. "Then you tell them that they're most likely to drink in their own home and it gets pretty tense - they'd probably like to punch the researcher."

The increase in underage drinking certainly isn't helped by the attitude of many adults. Whereas drugs are viewed as the chief demon, alcohol is seen as relatively benign - mainly because it's legal.

"There's a really quite shocking complacency around alcohol," said Mark Bennett, spokesman for Alcohol Concern. "When a kid comes home rolling drunk, you hear the parents say: 'Well, I'm glad it's not drugs' - it never causes the hysteria that illegal drugs do."

Combine this with the fact that in the past five years there has been a surge of outlets where alcohol is readily available, such as supermarkets, high street wine shops and off-licences, and it is not so surprising that drinking has gone up.

According to Alcohol Concern, two disturbing trends have recently emerged. The average consumption among 11 to 15-year-olds has more than doubled in the 1990s and the proportion of this age group who drink at least once a week rose from 13 per cent in 1988 to 20 per cent in 1996.

The problem among young people isn't alcoholism so much as an inability to cope with the one-off binges, said Mr Bennett. "It's about issues of drunkenness and alcohol poisoning. It's about not knowing when to stop. Realistically most young people don't need treatment. They need education." Which, it seems, their parents cannot be guaranteed to provide.

As Jack Lynch, team leader on the Youth Alcohol Project for Alcohol And Drugs Community Services in Coventry, said: "We're dealing with the mixed feelings of the population about alcohol. You've got adults trying to prescribe what's right and wrong for young people without addressing their own behaviour." And as a nation we're drinking more, so naturally our children will emulate that behaviour.

"If parents have myths about drinking, young people will too," said Mr Lynch. "A young person will come here and say: 'I haven't got a problem, I only drink X pints of beer a week.'"

Mr Lynch said that about 50 per cent of the 10- to 13-year-olds he speaks to in schools are familiar with the difference between high and low- strength lagers. Inevitably there's a knock-on effect. In Blackmore, Berkshire, the relationship between drink and disorder among young people grew so acute last year that the local police launched Project Bogart to tackle these issues.

"There were so many complaints about disorder we felt we had to do something to tackle the problem. Working on the streets we came across very little drugs but a lot of alcohol," said Inspector Mark Millar.

"We worked with local youth services as well as off-licences, getting their co-operation not to let it out in the first place." The level of complaints and vandalism fell dramatically, although the long-term causes remain. "There is a problem with people over 18 years old supplying the younger ones," said Insp Millar. "And one or two parents openly said things like: 'I buy my daughter two cans of lager so I can stay in and watch Coronation Street'. There is nothing illegal about that. What can you do about it?"

It's a familiar story in Camden, North London, where three boys were hanging around the back door of a large Irish pub, looking decidedly bored and dejected. Tom is 16 years old, Dean and John are both 14. "I just want to get f***ed up as quickly and cheaply as possible," laughed Dean. "We can't get served in pubs but there's an offie up there that serves us all the time. We like Budweiser and 20/20." So when did they first discover alcohol? "I tasted wine when I was seven," said Tom. "My mum gave me whisky when I was young - I'm not sure why." None of them claims to drink regularly. "We like to drink on special occasions," said Tom. "Birthdays and some weekends."

These are potentially the riskiest times - when young people are more likely to drink relatively large amounts in a short period. As Mr Lynch said: "Young people's drinking is usually episodic - an explosive amount that can lead to explosive problems."