Britain near top of Europe’s teenage binge-drinking league
The government faced fresh calls today to increase the price of alcohol, after research revealed that young people in the UK reported some of the highest levels of teenage binge-drinking, drunkenness and alcohol-related problems in Europe.
British schoolgirls aged 15 and 16 are binge-drinking even more than their male classmates, with fresh evidence that their behaviour is contributing towards high rates of teenage alcohol-related accidents and unprotected sex. Yet British teenagers were more likely than those in all other European countries to claim that they expected “positive consequences” from drinking, such as “feeling relaxed” and “forgetting my problems”.
The European School Survey Project on Alcohol and other Drugs (Espad) is the most detailed international study of its kind, covering teenagers’ drinking, smoking and drug-taking habits in 32 European countries. The UK sample involved 2,179 teenagers: 1,004 boys and 1,175 girls.
The latest study was carried out in 2007 by researchers at the University of the West of England (UWE), Bristol. Professor Martin Plant, who led the exercise, said: “The UK retains its unenviable position in relation to binge-drinking, intoxication and alcohol-related problems amongst teenagers. This problem is both serious and chronic. I hope that the government will prioritise policies that are effective to reduce heavy drinking and alcohol-related disorder and health problems amongst young people.”
Among the main findings, UK teenagers ranked the third highest (after Denmark and the Isle of Man) in terms of saying they had been drunk within 30 days of the survey, with 33% reporting such recent intoxication. . In 2003 it was revealed that teenage girls in the UK (as well as Ireland and the Isle of Man) were more likely than boys to have been binge-drinking in the previous 30 days. The latest survey shows that girls are maintaining this lead in the UK. Just over a quarter of students (26%) said they had suffered an accident or injury as a result of getting drunk, while 11% said they had had sex without a condom, 11% had sex they later regretted, and 18% had experienced problems with their parents.
Overall, cigarette use by European teenagers has fallen since 1999, and in the UK since 1995. Altogether, 22% of UK teens (17% of boys and 25% of girls) had smoked in the past 30 days, and 11% reported having used cannabis in the same period.
The researchers conclude in the 400-page report: “The fact that some teenage girls are ‘binge’ drinking even more than boys suggests that in the UK and elsewhere a profound social change has been taking place. It is clearly no longer socially unacceptable for females to drink heavily or to become intoxicated. This may reflect factors such as greater female social and economic empowerment and changing social roles as well as the marketing practices.”
Dr Patrick Miller of the UWE said supermarkets were to blame for selling cheap loss-leading alcohol to entice young people into their stores. He went on: “Some of the girls who drink to excess will die. The government has a chance to save lives by increasing the price of alcohol.”
The chief medical officer for England, Sir Liam Donaldson, recently proposed raising tax on alcohol, although ministers have said they do not want to discriminate against moderate drinkers.
Don Shenker, chief executive of Alcohol Concern, said: “Not only are UK children getting drunk more often than most of their European peers, they’re drinking larger amounts when they do. These figures show that the widespread practice of binge-drinking in the UK has now filtered down to school-age children. This presents a stark rebuke to government and the drinks industry, who have failed to tackle this growing problem.”
He said the study also showed that, unlike in other parts of Europe, children in the UK did not fully understand the negative consequences of drinking: “This explains the far higher rates of teenage alcohol-related accidents and unprotected sex in this country. All the evidence points to a need to increase the price of alcohol to better protect young people’s wellbeing. Any further inaction on the part of government will only further increase this worrying trend.”
The Liberal Democrat health spokesman, Norman Lamb, said: “This report paints a bleak picture of the government’s failure to tackle the epidemic of alcohol abuse amongst young people. It is further evidence of just how serious the problem is in the UK compared with the rest of Europe. Our children drink more, get drunk more often and are less worried about the potential harm alcohol can cause than their counterparts in almost all of Europe.”
On behalf of the industry, the Wine and Spirits Trade Association said: “The survey’s authors are entirely wrong to advocate higher taxation of alcohol and higher prices to curb misuse when it is illegal for under 18s to purchase alcohol in the first place. What the survey does show is that proper education on alcohol in schools is needed now if tomorrow’s adults are to understand the risks associated with excessive consumption.”