Drinking, smoking and drug use show dramatic rise among children

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The Independent Online

Drinking among young teenage boys has risen almost threefold in the past 10 years, with more than 50 per cent indulging regularly by the age of 15, a study reveals today.

The Social Trends report, by the Office of National Statistics, paints a gloomy picture. Not only are youngsters drinking, smoking and taking drugs more, but an increasing number are obese, with many failing to meet government guidelines on eating and exercise.

Boys aged 11 to 13 are now consuming the equivalent of four pints of beer or more a week (8.4 units of alcohol), compared with about 3 units in the early 1990s. Overall, children are drinking twice as much as they did a decade ago.

While the number of schoolchildren who have at least one alcoholic drink a week has risen from one-fifth in 1990 to a quarter by 2000, there has been a far more marked increase in the amount they consume every seven days. "Young people have a lot more money than they had previously, so a lot more to spend on drink," said a spokeswoman for Alcohol Concern. "Alcohol is directed at young people now with the rise in alcopops, which are brightly coloured, don't taste of alcohol and are easily consumed."

Boys aged 11 to 15 now drink 11.7 units a week, while 15-year-olds consume 14.5 units, more than the recommended limit for adult women and two-thirds the limit for a grown man.

Alcohol Concern said: "The effect on a teenager is different as they are still growing so no one knows the long-term effects of drinking to excess."

While acknowledging that drinking was a "rite of passage" many children would grow out of, the charity warned it could lead to uncharacteristically dangerous behaviour such as crime or unsafe sex.

"If a young person drinks for the first time in a supervised home environment and is taught to drink sensibly, that is the best start. It is when they are unsupervised in gangs in parks that there are problems," the spokeswoman added.

Girls showed an equally marked growth in alcohol consumption, from 4.7 units to 9.1 a week – the equivalent of nine glasses of wine – since 1990.

Drug use is also on the increase with the number of schoolchildren who had used illegal drugs – predominantly cannabis – jumping from 11 to 14 per cent between 1998 and 2000. More than 60 per cent of 15-year-olds said they had been offered drugs.

While the number of pupils who smoked increased from 1999 to 2000, the level of smoking has varied little in the past decade and the report said there was not yet enough evidence to identify an upward trend. Almost a quarter of 15-year-olds smoke regularly.

The Social Trends report also revealed that working- class children are three times more likely to develop mental illness than the offspring of professional parents. One in 10 children and adolescents had a mental disorder in 1999. While the figure for the sons and daughters of managerial workers was just 5 per cent, it was 14 per cent among the children of unskilled manual workers.

Carol Summerfield, one of the study editors, said Britain was in many ways a better place in the early 21st century with a falling trend in pollution and smoking, as well as greater education and job opportunities, particularly for women. "But there remains a significant minority who are getting left behind, such as lone-parent families and those without qualifications," she added.

One of the more obvious manifestations of decreasing but still evident class division was the difference in mental health, the report said. Dr Anula Nikapota, a child psychiatrist, said she would be wary of generalising about mental health among children but admitted many of the risk factors associated with psychiatric illness could be more prevalent among poorer families. "There may be psychiatric illness or substance abuse among parents, which leads to unemployment," she said. "You can see the same factors in people of a high social class but they can be more prevalent among those with socio- economic difficulties.

Children of lone parents had double the chance of developing psychiatric problems than those from couple families – 16 per cent compared with 8.

"In all areas of children's lives inequalities exist," the report said. "Disadvantaged children experience more mental health problems [and] more self-harm. It will be some years before it is possible to measure the impact of initiatives aimed at reducing these inequalities."