Wide eyed and legless

At the end of August, Mark Shields from Northumberland was found dead in bed on the morning of his 18th birthday after celebrating the night before with five pints of lager, five double whiskies and three double shots of liqueur in less than 40 minutes. This tragedy followed the revelation that, in 2003-4, 13 teenagers a day were admitted to hospital suffering from the affects of alcohol abuse.

It is unsurprising then that alcohol charities, doctors, the Association of Chief Police Officers and judges have all expressed serious concerns about next month’s introduction of relaxed licensing laws which will allow pubs and bars to open around the clock.

The list of problems alcohol causes young people is long and ranges from health-related issues, to behaviour and relationship problems, to a heightened risk of being the victim or the perpetrator of violence.

“When we see young people in A&E as a result of violence, in the vast majority of cases alcohol is involved,” says Dr Vivienne Nathanson, head of science and ethics at the British Medical Association, who warns that we are facing a public health epidemic. “We are going to see an explosion of serious liver disease in young adults and that’s very worrying. The consequences for individuals and society will be catastrophic.”

Her concerns are echoed by Dr Clare Gerada, a south London GP and director of the substance misuse unit at the Royal College of General Practitioners.

“Disinhibition caused by drink is a major issue for young people and places them at greater risk of making bad decisions like having unprotected sex or taking drugs,” she says. “It isn’t necessarily now that we are going to see the health problems of 14- to 15-year-old drinkers – our worry as doctors is that we are sitting on a potential explosion of alcohol-related problems in 10 years’ time.

“We don’t know what alcohol – and particularly spirits – is going to do to their young livers and their young brains.”

Alcohol charity Alcohol Concern says there is a lot of work to be done in turning around attitudes to alcohol, and in talking to young people about the issues. “The worrying trend for us is that young people are drinking much greater quantities and more frequently,” says Geethika Jayatilaka, director of policy and public affairs at the charity.

“There are links between alcohol and early sex – which is sometimes regretted – and we have found that alcohol played a part in 20% of school exclusions.”

Jayatilaka stresses that it’s really important to get the tone and message of education and information right and to make sure the messages resonate for young people, who are likely to be facing peer pressure.

“We know that there is a certain amount of ambivalence in communicating the messages around alcohol because 90%of people drink themselves. We need to give teachers and youth workers the skills and confidence to talk about the issues without feeling awkward or hypocritical,” she says.

Nathanson wants to see the government look closely at all the factors that encourage young people to drink. “We need a joined-up approach to the problem with education as a key plank and that needs to start in schools,” she says.

Gerada, meanwhile, cautions against demonising young people saying that they simply echo what adults do. “We should stop making it their problem – it’s not theirs, it’s ours,” she says.

The Scottish executive seems to have taken this message to heart. In March this year it published the Licensing (Scotland) Bill to tackle the country’s “shocking” record on alcohol. The measures will call time on happy hour and other “irresponsible” drink promotions, and sales drives designed to appeal to young people will be banned in supermarkets and off licences.

As 24/7 drinking becomes a reality in Britain next month, many will be hoping that Westminster will consider following Scotland’s lead.


  1. Alcohol-related deaths have risen by nearly a fifth in the last four years.
  2. The real price of alcohol has halved in the UK since the 1960s.
  3. A major NHS survey of 11- to 15-year-old school children published in August found that:

  • Nearly half of 15-year-old pupils had drunk alcohol in the last week.
  • A quarter of pupils who had drunk in the last week had consumed 14 units or more.
  • More young people are drinking spirits and alcopops – although beer, lager and cider were still the most popular overall.
  • Nearly half those surveyed had been drunk in the last week.
  • Nearly a third deliberately tried to get drunk.

        “There’s no one stereotype”
        Branching Out is a joint venture between Lifeline and Turning Point and offers a multi-agency service to young people aged under 19 who are using, or at risk of using, drugs and alcohol in the Tameside and Glossop areas of the north.

        Team leader Emma Hawley says: “We get referrals from the youth offending team, the Connexions service, social services and, more and more often, people self refer.”
        She stresses that the young people come from all sorts of backgrounds. “Some are involved in offending, but not all; some are in education, some are not; some are very much engaged with their families and for others there is a difficult family relationship. There’s no one stereotype.”

        The catalyst for a referral varies, but Hawley says that quite often it is when the young person realises that they have a problem. “Parents might be laying down the law, or it might be that they are involved with the youth offending team and that alcohol was a factor in them committing their offence. Some of the young people have mental health problems and seek help when they reach some sort of crisis.

        “We work with them to help them resolve their problems with alcohol and this will be different with every young person ranging from stopping using altogether through to reducing their use or using more safely.”

        Hawley adds that parents often need support too to deal with the conflict that can arise as a result of the stress of having a child who drinks too much. “They might be having problems with curfews; the impact the drinking is having on school work; and general behaviour problems,” says Hawley. “Quite often parents just need someone to talk to and get advice from outside of their own families.”

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