On the evening of Monday July 6 Paddy Higgins, of Surrey, was enjoying a night out with friends at a restaurant in Newquay, the party capital of the South West. He was celebrating finishing his exams and was no doubt looking forward to a relaxing summer holiday. Just a few hours later, he lay dead at the foot of clifftops on the town’s Tolcarne beach.
Paddy was only 16 years old and the exams he had completed were GCSEs. That night, despite being underage, he had been able to buy Corona beers and sambuccas without having to show any ID. Just a few weeks earlier, 18 year old Andrew Curwell, of Lancashire, was also found dead at the foot of cliffs in Newquay after a night out in the town.
Campaigns are afoot to prevent the sale of alcohol to underage people in Newquay, but with fake ID so easy to purchase on the internet, local police and families of the victims face a huge task.
Newquay: scene of double tragedy
These recent events are a tragic example of the worsening binge drinking culture among teenagers in Britain. Last week, the NHS’s Information Survey into Drug Use, Smoking and Drinking among Young People revealed that, although the numbers of teenagers drinking have fallen, those who do drink are drinking more. In fact, the amount of alcohol that British teenagers drink has doubled since the early 1990s.
Don Shenker, chief executive of Alcohol Concern, spoke exclusively to Tom-Brown.com: “Teens are drinking an extra two units a week on average, which takes their intake up to 14 to 16 units each. It’s a lot when you consider the limit for adult women per week is 14 units – and these are 11 to 15 year olds.
“Their bodies are not yet developed – they’re still growing and their organs are developing. Also, sensible drinking habits might not have been learned yet. Another interesting trend is that girls have caught up with boys, across the board, and are just as likely to take part in binge drinking,” he comments.
Teens in rehab
The National Treatment Agency has released statistics that show the number of people under 18 receiving rehabilitation treatment for alcohol problems and dependency has risen dramatically in recent years. In 2006, there were 4781 under-18s in treatment programmes for alcohol dependency. In 2007, that figure rose to 6707.
“These figures are just the tip of the iceberg,” says Don Shenker, “They don’t count the young people who are not in rehab, who might get counselling, or teens whose problems haven’t been picked up.”
Under the influence
Many mid-teens drink to excessThe recent NHS report also revealed that school pupils are more than three times as likely to drink alcohol if they live with other drinkers. The percentage of 11-15 year old children who drank alcohol in the week prior to the survey was five per cent in non-drinking households, increasing to 31 per cent in households with three or more other people who drank alcohol.
This follows Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson’s statement earlier in the year that children should never be given alcohol in the home, despite the fact that it is legal for children over the age of five to be given an alcoholic drink by their parents.
Professor Ian Gilmore, the president of the Royal College of Physicians and chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance, highlights other worrying trends: “There’s some evidence that youngsters who taste it early are more likely to become alcohol dependent in later life. One mustn’t lose sight of the fact that alcohol is the biggest cause of death in young men aged 16-24.”
Many parents, however, believe that allowing children small amounts of alcohol from their early teens ‘demystifies’ drinking and discourages them from binge drinking when they’re older. This is common on the continent, also, where children may be given watered-down wine with a meal.
So, what is the best course for parents to pursue, when there are so many conflicting messages being delivered? Don Shenker believes that it’s up to parents individually how they introduce children to alcohol and that it’s important to open a dialogue about the effects of drinking.
“Be honest about not only the positive benefits of drinking – the social benefits – but what the negative consequences can be, too. Parents can set a good example by not always having alcohol at home, not stacking up alcohol and making sure their children are confident enough to say ‘no’ to a drink.”
On the streets
While parents need to be vigilant at home, the tragic deaths in Newquay suggest that dangers lie in areas that are difficult for parents and the authorities to monitor. Various experts have pointed to the pricing of alcohol and its availability to underage drinkers in particular.
In July, 22 year old Gary Reinbach died of acute cirrhosis of the liver in University College Hospital, London. Gary started drinking at the age of 11 and, by the time he was 13, he would binge drink with friends. His mother said that he was able to buy bottles of whisky for only £7.
Teen buying power
With two-litre bottles of white cider (a favourite of many teenage drinkers) costing only £2 each, it’s easy to see how some children in the UK can afford to drink in large quantities. “We did a study of under-sixteen purchasing power recently and it was around £10 a week,” explains Mr Shenker. “The amount of alcohol that they can buy for that is around 60 units.”
Sir Liam Donaldson has said that “cheap alcohol is killing us all” and has called for a minimum price per unit of 50p. Alcohol Concern is backing this measure: “Evidence from around the world shows that if you use the price of alcohol as a lever, you can reduce consumption, especially among young drinkers,” says Mr Shenker. “This helps to lessen the general problems caused by alcohol such as hospital admissions, illness, crime and absenteeism from work or school.”
Purchase by proxy
Is alcohol too cheap in the UK?The ease at which underage drinkers get hold of alcohol is another key concern. Many young people get alcohol from home or purchase ‘by proxy’ through friends who are 18 or over and there is little that can be done about this.
Supermarkets are being seen to take a more responsible attitude towards alcohol purchase, although there are still flaws. Three of the top four supermarkets run the Challenge 25 initiative, whereby if you look under 25 and try to buy alcohol, you will be asked for ID. Alcohol Concern has found, however, that many supermarket promotions, in particular those that use own-brand products, fail to make clear the number of alcohol units contained in the product promoted.
“Even if you do buy products that have unit information on them, it’s very difficult for people to relate the number of units in that product to sensible drinking. As a result, people don’t know the consequences of exceeding the limit or the range of medical problems that can occur,” says Mr Shenker.
Alcohol Concern believes that every retail outlet should have a proof of age scheme. There is also new legislation going through parliament to impose slightly tougher penalties on retailers. Currently, if a shopkeeper sells alcohol to a minor three times within three months they may lose their licence. The new law will change that rule to two strikes and you’re out.
All these measures are a start, but are we neglecting the cause of teenage drinking in Britain? Don’t we need to ask, as a society, why our children are drinking more? The latest report from the Children’s Society found that young people are more ‘anxious and troubled’ now than ever before and that their lives are ‘more difficult’ than in the past.
Social pressures, family break-ups, violence in the home, pressure over finding a job or a place at university all take their toll and may lead children towards what they view as temporary escapism. Is there more that parents, schools, the government and youth organisations can do to improve the lives of teenagers in Britain so they don’t want to get ‘wasted’ every weekend?
Also, many experts believe that more effective communication of the dangers of excessive drinking would help to discourage young people from starting to drink in the first place. People tend to associate heavy drinking with cirrhosis of the liver, but they don’t think of the cancers, heart disease or fertility problems that can be caused or contributed to by heavy drinking.
Alcohol can also be a contributory factor in crime; it can make people become victims of crime; it can increase the likelihood of high-risk behaviour, such as drug-taking, not practicing safe sex, walking home alone at night or taking chances around dangerous cliffs, like Paddy Higgins and Andrew Curwell.
For more advice on how to get help with alcoholism, visit http://www.tom-brown.com/articles/teenagers-dying-drink/