Boys and girls aged 12 and 13 are turning to prostitution to feed their heroin addiction, one police chief said.
The warnings came as Customs and Excise announced that the total amount of drugs seized in 1996 had increased by more than 60 per cent over the previous year to a record 80 tonnes - worth about pounds 500m.
Joint police and customs figures, published yesterday, also revealed a record rise in the amount of cannabis seized, sharp increases in the amount of amphetamines recovered and a continuing upward trend in cocaine, but a surprise drop in ecstasy.
Heroin, however, was identified as the drug causing the most concern. The police in England and Wales made 7,880 seizures last year and while the amount recovered by Customs officers was down on the record total of 1995 they still believe the long-term trend is up. Drug agencies estimate that only 10 per cent of the heroin that comes into Britain is intercepted en route.
Keith Hellawell, Chief Constable of West Yorkshire and drugs spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers, said: "The worrying trend is the use of heroin on the street. The cost in some cities is the same as cannabis. More younger people are becoming addicted to heroin and committing crime to feed their habits. Young females are having to prostitute themselves to feed their habit.
"We now tragically see it's relatively common for 12 and 13-year-old prostitutes on the street, which also allows paedophiles to prey on them."
He added that the heroin addicts were now using stolen electrical goods to barter directly with drug dealers. "A television or video will buy four or five wraps of heroin," he said.
Seizures of cannabis by customs rose by 46 per cent to 76 tonnes, making it by far the most popular drug, although police action dropped slightly.