While recent reports have indicated that the numbers of young people drinking are on a downward trend, it seems that those who are drinking may well be drinking more.
Over the last five years, there have been nearly 48,000 incidents where alcohol or drugs have led to hospital admissions for people aged 17 or younger, according to according to figures obtained – via freedom of information (FOI) requests – by BBC Radio 5 Live’s Victoria Derbyshire programme.
The true number is likely to be higher as only 125 of 189 trusts responded to the FOI request, the BBC points out. Perhaps most disturbingly, 293 children aged 11 or below went to an A&E department last year because of alcohol – including for falls and poisoning – a tenth of whom had to stay in hospital overnight. In addition, more than 1,300 12 to 14-year-olds attended for alcohol and over 4,600 15 to 17-year-olds, although, as the programme points out, the figures are down on 2009’s totals.
‘Probably about 11 or 12’ says one of the programme’s young interviewees, when asked how old he was when he started drinking – alcopops, lager, cider ‘or whatever was lying around’. Many obtained their drink through siblings or asking strangers to buy it for them, and others discussed moving on to spirits as it got them drunk more quickly. Most cited boredom, peer pressure or the normalising effect of their parents’ heavy drinking as reasons why they drank.
Alcohol charity Drinkaware called the figures ‘shocking’ and a ‘stark reminder about the dangerous consequences of alcohol misuse’, and urged parents to talk to their children about alcohol. ‘As important role models for children when it comes to alcohol use, we encourage parents to have open and honest discussions about the risks of underage drinking,’ said chief executive Elaine Hindal. ‘We believe that the “alcohol chat” is better in the living room than in A&E.’
‘I think it’s more about what parents say to each other,’ Alcohol Concern chief executive Eric Appleby tells DDN, however. ‘It’s very often a case of “do as I say but not as I do”. We shouldn’t be that surprised that kids get into trouble with alcohol, given the environment in which they grow up. It’s no good saying to kids at the age of 14 or 15, “be careful with drink, don’t drink too much” if they’ve spent the previous 14, 15 years hearing their parents and everyone else talking in very approving terms about drink – “it’s Friday, let’s have a drink!” and so on. By the time they’re old enough to get their hands on it, they’ve been pretty much, you could almost say, brainwashed into thinking it’s a good thing, an important thing, an adult thing.’
Although his organisation isn’t ‘entirely surprised’ by these latest figures, they are nonetheless ‘pretty frightening’, he says. Alcohol Concern and others have consistently campaigned for tighter marketing restrictions – how much of a role does advertising play for this age group? ‘It’s one important factor – they see it all around them – and the research we did in Wales showed that kids know the alcohol brands more than they do the sweets or cakes brands (DDN, July, page 5)’ he says. ‘We know the advertising gets inside their heads and they retain that.’
And, inevitably, kids tend to buy alcohol that’s cheap. So are these figures another argument in favour of minimum pricing? ‘Absolutely. A couple of the kids interviewed on the Victoria Derbyshire programme actually said “we buy it from our pocket money” – we’ve been using the phrase “pocket money prices” for the last year or so, and it’s just a perfect illustration.’
Minimum pricing is far from a silver bullet on its own, however, he acknowledges. ‘It’s one obvious response, but one thing we mustn’t do is just blame the victims all the time. Yes, it’s a strategy we need to take, but just saying “we should be tougher on pricing, tougher on underage sales” is only really scratching at the surface. Those are the things we can do straight away, but in the longer term it’s about the environment that we subject young people to.”
When it comes to getting treatment for those affected, are commissioners sufficiently aware of the specific needs of young people with alcohol issues? ‘It would appear not,’ he states. ‘It feels as though people are still surprised when kids turn up in A&E and hospital wards with alcohol problems. They know all about the dangers of drugs but it somehow still seems to have passed them by that the numbers coming in through alcohol are much greater. And we clearly need to do more to tackle it.’