Young people in the UK drink more than their counterparts in
Europe, and they are starting to drink at an ever younger age.
Services, however, have been slow to recognise how the problem is
escalating. Natalie Valios reports
“Whassup!” is one of the latest catchy slogans used in alcohol
adverts to portray the socially acceptable face of drinking. While
a bottle of Budweiser is more likely to be aimed at punters in
their mid-twenties the appearance of “alcopops” in chiller cabinets
a couple of years ago led to accusations that manufacturers were
cynically targeting younger or even under-age drinkers.
Whether alcopops has actually increased drinking among a younger
age group is unknown. What is known is that young people in the UK
drink more than their European counterparts.
According to the second European School Survey Project on
Alcohol and other Drugs (Espad), 15 and 16 year olds in this
country drink more than those in 22 other European
The survey interviewed 60,000 young people in 30 countries and
2,000 were interviewed by the Alcohol and Health Research Centre in
Edinburgh for the UK part of the survey.
It found that 91 per cent of UK respondents had been drinking
alcohol during the past 12 months, above the average of all other
Espad countries. Sixty-nine per cent of UK pupils had been drunk in
the previous year, compared to a European average of 52 per cent.
The survey’s findings also put young people in this country at the
top of the league table for using illicit drugs.
A study released to coincide with a World Health Organisation
conference on young people and alcohol in Sweden in February
revealed that three in 10 Britons aged 14-16 said they had been
drunk at least 20 times.
Researchers believe the first experiences of drinking begins
around 11 but can come as early as eight.
In addition, about 1,000 children aged under 15 are admitted to
hospital every year with alcohol poisoning.
Professionals in the substance misuse field are all too aware
that the government is pumping money into drug prevention and
treatment programmes for young people.
To say there is a lack of services specifically for young people
with drinking problems is an understatement. Recently, a
13-year-old child contacted Alcohol Concern requesting detox
treatment. In the absence of services – there are only a couple of
residential units in the country for young people – the
organisation does the next best thing with these calls when a
referral to a unit is not possible. It contacts the local alcohol
service so that an alcohol worker and a child psychologist or
psychiatrist can put together a package of services.
Drinkers under 18 are even unable to access the help of drop-in
advice agencies unless they have their parents’ consent to attend.
These agencies can offer help and support, but young people will
find themselves mixing with problem drinkers of all ages
-Êhardly an ideal situation.
So why are services so poor for young people misusing alcohol?
One reason could be that alcohol is viewed as socially acceptable.
A large proportion of the adult population drinks regularly, and
for young people it is seen as a rite of passage.
This is mirrored at national policy level. Three years ago in
its green paper Our Healthier Nation, the government
stated its intention to introduce a national alcohol
strategy.2 We are still waiting for the consultation
paper which is due to be published this year.
This lethargy led Alcohol Concern to carry out its own
consultation on what an alcohol strategy should contain.
“We need clear objectives and targets for dealing with alcohol,”
says Sue Baker, assistant director at Alcohol Concern. A 5 per cent
reduction in the level of alcohol misuse by the end of the
strategy’s first five-year term would be a reasonable, if
For the moment, the government has also abstained from including
alcohol in the National Treatment Agency – a moot point for those
who were consulted, says Baker. This cross-departmental agency is
expected to be running later this year. Under the agency, young
people’s substance misuse plans will be drawn up by the 150 drug
action teams across the country. Following the consultation
responses, the government is currently considering whether alcohol
will be included in its remit.
“The emphasis is coming from the drug side and the drug side
only,” says Baker. “It’s not a competition, but it has to be said
that the numbers of young people drinking in a dangerous way has
increased quite substantially over the past 10 years.”
Research published by the organisation last year reveals that
among 11- to 15-year-olds who drink, their mean weekly consumption
rose from 5.3 units in 1990 to 9.9 units in 1998.3 It
also found that 37 per cent of 16- to 24-year-old young men and 23
per cent of young women of the same age regularly binge drink on
twice the recommended daily limits.
In the absence of a national alcohol strategy and with the
emphasis on a robust drug strategy, alcohol is becoming more and
more marginalised, says Baker. Because of the sparsity of alcohol
services across the country there is a demand for pilot
intervention models, she says. “The evidence base for robust
service approaches is not strong. It’s not known what works.”
Even if services were in place, you cannot rely on children just
walking through the door and admitting they have a drink problem.
Increasing the skills base of professionals such as teachers and
youth leaders to recognise when alcohol may be a problem would
help, says Baker. Part of its suggested strategy is to strengthen
alcohol education through specific guidance to schools.
One difficulty with alcoholism is that it often isn’t the main
presenting problem and so may not be the best starting point for
intervention in sorting out a young person’s problems. If a young
person is drinking because they are depressed, the depression
should be tackled first, says Nicola Madge, assistant research
director at the National Children’s Bureau.
“It all depends whether alcohol is the cause or the consequence
of other problems. If it is the consequence, perhaps other issues
need to be dealt with first. Many difficulties are interlinked and
tackling one may also indirectly affect others.”
Adolescent Assessment Services, a consultancy group run by
psychologists, believes that alcohol is underestimated as a gateway
drug to further drug use. The consultancy group specialises in
lifestyle and attitude surveys among children aged between eight
and 18. Key findings from last year’s survey of 100,000 young
people found that more than one-third of 16-year-olds were drinking
on at least a weekly basis; while 8.7 per cent of 16-year-olds were
taking illicit drugs weekly or more.
Young people tend to use alcohol first, before experiencing
other drugs, says director of research Jeremy Gluck. Under-age
drinkers may not end up as alcoholics, but they may acquire an
inbuilt susceptibility to use alcohol as a crutch, and this issue
needs to be raised, says Gluck.
“Alcohol may not affect you as seriously as drugs straight away,
but it can become habitual and can then have an affect later on in
life. Alcoholism has to be taken more seriously,” says Gluck. “We
want a clarified drug education programme which introduces the
issues of alcohol.”
Until a national alcohol strategy is in place, there is little
chance the government will pour money into any alcohol services,
let alone those for young people, who are often the hidden
drinkers. And until local authorities have to hit government
targets for reducing drinking among young people, they will
continue to push money into drug treatment rather than alcohol
Gluck points out that while many young people experimenting with
drugs will stop taking them recreationally after about five years,
a percentage of young drinkers will continue to drink heavily
throughout their lives. It is a sobering thought. Let’s hope the
government doesn’t call last orders on alcohol services for young
1 Bjorn Hibell et al, The 1999 ESPAD
Report, Swedish Council for Information on Alcohol and Other
2 Department of Health, Our Healthier
Nation, Stationery Office, 1998
3 Alcohol Concern, Britain’s Ruin,
Alcohol Concern, 2000
For information on signs to look for in a teenage
drinker visit www.alcoholconcern.org.uk
Alcohol Concern’s strategy wish-list
- A high profile ministerial lead.
- An alcohol co-ordination unit to oversee the strategy’s
- An alcohol advisory forum to inform the development of the
strategy drawn from those involved in the implementation of alcohol
policy nationally and locally, including the alcohol industry.
- An alcohol research function to ensure the necessary data are
available and provide independent evaluation of the strategy.
- At local level a formal expansion of the remit of drug action
teams to include alcohol, with specific alcohol targets and
guidance. They should report on alcohol issues to the alcohol