Special report: Under-age drinking

Hayley was a drinker at 12, an alcoholic at 14. Her story is shocking, but not unusual

Britain's booze culture is putting more children into hospital with drink-related problems than ever before. Paul Bignell and Jonathan Owen report on the rise of child alcoholism

Hayley Nash, like many teenagers growing up in Britain, enjoys the same things as most girls of her age: listening to dance music in her bedroom, chatting to friends about fashion and playing with her family's three cats and dogs.

But Hayley has a disease that has already had a devastating effect on her short life: she is an alcoholic and has been since she was 12. "When I first started drinking I didn't like the taste," she said. "But then I got used to it and started to like it."

Hayley, 16, started drinking with friends in local parks out of boredom. They drank cheap lager, bought by clubbing together their pocket money. Sometimes they would drink eight cans along with a bottle of vodka. It was when Hayley's grandmother started to develop Alzheimer's disease that her drinking started to get out of control. "It was a coping mechanism when I was sad for my Nan," said Hayley. "I used to drink alone in the cemetery - and to be honest, I just wanted to drink myself to death."

Hayley's drinking escalated to the point where she was getting through eight cans of lager and a bottle of vodka a day, months after starting secondary school. By hiding the smell of alcohol on her breath with chewing gum and going straight to bed after drinking, Hayley was able to keep the problem from her mother. "I could pull the wool over anyone's eyes," she said.

Her teachers were the first to become aware of her problem after she broke down in the classroom. "I had been denying that I had a problem with alcohol, and then I finally admitted that yes, I did have a problem." In a striking example of the perils of the growing teenage drink culture, Hayley has been told by her doctors she must cut down her alcohol consumption or damage her body irreparably.

However, with no NHS facilities to treat teenage alcoholics, her GP told Hayley to she begin a home "detox plan" last Monday, cutting the number of cans she drinks by one every three days, starting from 12. Now down to six cans a day, she admits she is finding it difficult. "I'm trying to stretch out the drinks throughout the day just to make it easier. I'm really finding it hard."

This may seem an extreme example of the problems caused by teenage drinking, but experts say Hayley's situation is being mirrored throughout the country as young people drink more alcohol than ever before, prompting calls for the scale of the problem to be acknowledged.

Amid growing concerns over 24-hour drinking, soaring rates of liver disease and police forces unable to cope with drunken disturbances on the streets, an exclusive Independent on Sunday investigation today reveals the dramatic rise in children admitted to hospital because of alcohol-related illnesses.

The biggest increase is seen among girls under 16 years old, with a 25 per cent increase between 2002/03 and 2004/05. And the problem is getting worse: hospital admissions for under-18s are at their highest since records began, and the average amount children are drinking every week has doubled since 1990.

Professor Mark Bellis, director of the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University and a government adviser on alcohol-related issues, said: "The numbers of underage drinkers in hospital for alcohol-related conditions are substantial but it is only the tip of the iceberg. Many more children are admitted for problems not recorded as alcohol. The admissions include everything from being involved in violence to teenage pregnancies. For every one youth admitted due to alcohol consumption there are many more whose health suffers through excessive alcohol consumption."

The ages of children admitted to hospital for alcohol-related problems are getting lower. The number of eight-year-old-boys who drink has doubled from 5 per cent in 1995 to 10 per cent in 2005. The number of 11-year-old girls who drink has increased from 15 per cent in 1995 to 25 per cent in 2005. Many experts believe country is in the grip of a hidden epidemic - one that, like alcoholics themselves, the country is in denial about.

"Hospital statistics grossly underestimate the number of young people drinking alcohol in ways that will damage their health," said Professor Bellis. "In a recent survey of 10,000 15- to 16-year-olds, 90 per cent drank and nearly 40 per cent of these usually binged on alcohol. The same survey showed around 40 per cent of child drinkers buy their own alcohol and these are the ones whose drinking habits are the most dangerous."

Children's growing drinking habits are not just confined to inner cities or the suburbs. Kate Summers, 16, from Newquay, Cornwall, said that underage drinking was "rampant" in the country because there was "nothing else to do".

Last year police introduced exclusion zones around the beaches of Polzeath and Rock after residents complained of underage drinking and fighting. Dubbed the "Costa del Sloane", the beaches are a magnet for children from public schools.

A senior policeman with Devon and Cornwall constabulary also spoke out about the underage drinking culture after a mob of 100 youths - some as young as 12 - were caught at a mass boozing session in Falmouth.

The startling rise in underage drinking is already beginning to have repercussions on public health and will continue to do so for future generations unless something is done to curb the alcohol consumption of British children, campaigners say.

Frank Soodeen of the charity Alcohol Concern said: "A recent government report on alcohol-related deaths showed that the biggest group was men and women aged 35-54 - which is far younger than ever before. Clearly it's beginning to catch up at an earlier stage, which is very worrying. Generally the highest proportion a few years ago was well above that age group."

The most serious of these health problems is liver cirrhosis. People in their 20s and 30s are now ending up with serious liver problems which, until recently, were normally seen in people twice those ages.

Professor Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians and a liver specialist at the Royal Liverpool Hospital, said: "Cirrhosis of the liver has increased tenfold since the 1970s. There is a big concern about the rise in deaths from cirrhosis among young people. I think we are going to see big increases in people in their 20s and 30s being diagnosed with liver cirrhosis."

David Mayer, chair of the UK Transplant Liver Advisory Group, warned that young drinkers are storing up a problem for the future and are likely to require his services in years to come. "People have more money and more opportunity to drink from an earlier age and therefore their livers are exposed to chronically high alcohol levels. We are concerned that it's becoming an epidemic. It does take many years to develop cirrhosis, but if you start drinking at an early age you are going to see problems sooner rather than later."

With such a marked increase in child drinking, campaigners are furious over the lack of provision offered to young people such as Hayley in helping to tackle their problems. There are even calls for drying-out clinics to be set up specially for young people.

But Professor Bellis argues that we need to help children long before it reaches that stage. "Waiting until children develop alcohol problems means their health, their education and ultimately their life prospects have already begun to suffer. We need a major shift in our national attitudes towards alcohol."

Caroline Flint, the public health minister, last week claimed that the Government is tackling the problem through "targeted enforcement" - reducing sales to under-18s by bars, off-licences and retailers - as well as education on substance abuse.

But campaigners blame the drinks industry for promoting alcohol as "sexy" to the young. Mr Soodeen said: "The drinks industry plays a big part in the whole issue. We really need to be cutting off the supply to young people. Unfortunately, the drinks industry has been very effective in persuading the Government that a 'voluntary health' approach is the way forward. We find it odd that so much of the packaging on alcopops seems juvenile and the alcohol industry has yet to come up with a credible explanation."

As for Hayley, she is all too well aware of the lure alcohol can provide without being aware of its destructive consequences. Not only did the drink cause her to suffer from high blood pressure, vitamin deficiency and a severe liver problem, but she has also been out of school for two years. "I think alcohol is too easy for children to get hold of," she said, "and it's just as addictive as heroin or crack."

But she is looking forward to the future, going back to school in September and doing her English and maths GCSEs. She wants to help others struggling with the same problems. "I'd like to be a drug and alcohol counsellor for young people. I know what it's like to go through something like this."

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