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alcohol health alliance uk

Are we teaching our children to drink?

Posted 06/12/17

What’s the right thing to do as a parent when it comes to alcohol? That is one of the issues being examined at a major conference in the North exploring the impact of alcohol in childhood.

More children in the North East and nationally are choosing not to drink alcohol and although that is good news, Balance estimates that in the North East around 16,500 11-15 year olds drink on a regular basis and 9,300 have been drunk in the previous month.

A survey of North East adults found that many believe providing children with alcohol can help them handle drinking when they’re older. However, a separate survey with children suggests a stark difference between the myths and the reality.

• Over half (54%) of adults believe providing children with alcohol in a supervised situation will ensure they know how to handle drinking when they’re older . BUT a separate survey with children found:
• Children aged 11-15 are four times more likely to be an “at risk” drinker if their parents allowed them to drink alcohol .
• The same survey of 11-15 year olds also found that 87% of children whose parents DO NOT allow them to drink choose not to – including 76% of Year 10s .

Drinking alcohol can damage a child's health, even if they're 15 or older, affecting normal development of vital organs and functions, including the brain, liver, bones and hormones. Chief Medical Officer (CMO) guidance states that children who start drinking alcohol at an early age are more likely to develop alcohol problems in adolescence and adulthood. This is why CMO guidance recommends to children and their parents that an alcohol-free childhood is the healthiest and best option, and if children drink alcohol, it should not be until at least the age of 15 years.

Colin Shevills, Director of Balance, said: “Every parent wants the best for their child and it can be very difficult to know what the right thing to do is. None of us wants our children to become heavier drinkers. There is clear guidance out there, but it is not easy to find or widely promoted.

“And there are a lot of myths. Clearly many parents believe they are doing the right thing in providing alcohol in a supervised way from good intentions, but surveys with children suggest this increases the chances of children becoming an "at risk" drinker.

“Our children are growing up surrounded by alcohol advertising and cut price deals where the equivalent of 22 shots of vodka can be bought for under £4. But the evidence shows that parents can help to counter this. The fact is that most children whose parents don’t allow them to drink choose not to, avoiding many of the risks.

“Children are now drinking less than their parents’ generation did, and we are now seeing fewer children under 18 admitted to hospital. This is good news - we are in a great position to help this and the next generation have an alcohol free childhood and stay within the low risk guidelines once they are older. However it is worrying that still too many children are on the path to becoming dependent drinkers at a young age.”

Last month, new figures from NHS digital revealed that, in 2016, 44% of children aged 11-15 had tried alcohol. Analysis of the figures also shows that an estimated 300,000 of 11-15 year olds drink on a weekly basis, with over 200,000 having been drunk in the four weeks before being surveyed.

Colin Shevills added: “Just like tobacco advertising decades earlier, there is increasing evidence that exposure to alcohol advertising is associated with an increased likelihood that children will start to drink.

“Parents need clear advice to help their children by providing the right guidance – especially around zero consumption of alcohol before they turn 15. But we also need to control the “pester power” by reducing children’s exposure to alcohol advertising which gives a clear message that drinking is cool and helps them to fit in.”

A comprehensive evidence review of alcohol by Public Health England in 2016, published in The Lancet, reported that in countries with stricter regulations on alcohol advertising there was a lower prevalence of heavy drinking and having had a first drink by the age of 13 years. The report states that advertising regulations may be useful for reducing the public health burden caused by alcohol – just like the impact that restrictions on tobacco advertising had on smoking.

The report states that most major alcohol brands use a wide variety of marketing methods to promote alcohol brands online, both on branded websites and in social media:
• Advertising aimed at tablets and phones can expose children and young people to marketing while bypassing parent’s scrutiny. Alcohol brands have a strong social media presence.
• 10 to 15 year olds were more likely to see alcohol adverts on TV than adults .
• Exposure to alcohol advertising is associated with an increased likelihood that adolescents will start to drink, and if they already do, they will drink more .

Professor Peter Kelly, Public Health England North East Centre Director, said: “The harm alcohol causes is much wider than just on the individual drinker, excessive alcohol consumption can harm children, wreck families, impact on workplace colleagues and can be a burden and drain on the NHS and economy. It hits poor communities the hardest. As a nation we are drinking twice as much as we did 40 years ago and there are more than one million alcohol-related hospital admissions a year, half of which occur among the most deprived groups.

“In the North East we are working with our partners at a local, regional and national level, including our local authorities, the NHS and police to help shape policies and interventions designed to reduce the harmful effects of alcohol.”

The event will raise awareness of the impact of alcohol on families and children; and explore how the region can work together to protect children from the impact of alcohol. It will also examine the latest data on the numbers of children living with dependent drinkers.