Ministers launch alcopops inquiry

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The Independent Online
An "urgent" investigation into the sale of controversial alcopops was ordered by the Government yesterday while a new survey revealed that nearly six out of ten schoolchildren say they drink them.

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, said that the Government was "deeply concerned" about the issues surrounding the sale of sweet alcoholic drinks, some of which are stronger than many beers, and warned that under-age drinking could lead to a "downward spiral of offending".

"Alcopops abuse is a real concern. We all know the links between alcohol abuse and crime," he said. "I have asked George Howarth to look urgently with other ministers at the industry's own reaction to the problem. They will also consider what further action may be necessary to stop this abuse developing."

Mr Straw's announcement comes a day after alcopop makers were condemned as "grossly irresponsible" by a judge after he heard a 14-year-old boy got drunk on alcoholic lemonade and cider, and then burned down a school. Earlier this week the drinks industry watchdog, the Portman Group, said that shops should be able to boycott alcopop products which violate the drinks industry's code of conduct.

The survey of 700 children in seven schools showed that 59 per cent of youngsters claim to drink alcopops. The largest consumption of the drinks was in Manchester, Bristol and Birmingham, according to the survey carried out for The Sun newspaper.

It found 48 per cent of children have their first drink at the age of 11, and more than nine out of ten children aged between 14 and 17 claimed that they drunk alcohol every week.

Last month, anti-alcohol campaigners called for Moo, an alcoholic milk drink to be banned on the grounds it may appeal to children.

Since the voluntary code was set up, there have been seven products which have had to alter their packaging or marketing because they were deemed to have violated the code.

Government responsibility for regulating alcopops - which have an average alcohol content of 5 per cent-- falls between several government departments including the Home Office, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Alcohol Concern welcomed the Government's initiative. Its director Eric Appleby said: "We have been very concerned for two years that these drinks appeal to children as young as 13.

"The drinks industry's own attempts at self-regulation through the Portman Group have up to now been a failure, with some manufacturers simply ignoring the group's recommendations and changes to packaging taking months to reach the shelves.

"The Portman Group has not been able to show that it is able to offer effective or independent control over the appeal of alcopops to young people."

David Poley, head of policy for the Portman Group said: "We share the Government's concern about underage drinking and we want to do all we can to work with the Government to do something about the problem."