Health experts call for action on children’s drinking

2 November 2017: Figures released today indicate that over 1.3 million secondary school pupils in England have tried alcohol, with over 200,000 reporting that they have been drunk once or twice in the month before being surveyed.

The figures come as a new report calls on the government to do more to reduce youth drinking and protect children from alcohol advertising.

NHS Digital, the body that provides data to the NHS, has published its annual survey of secondary school pupils in England looking at their smoking, drinking and drug use. It found that, in 2016, 44% of children aged 11-15 had tried alcohol. This equates to over 1.3 million children.

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.

Against the backdrop of these survey figures, a report published today by Cancer Research UK, Youth engagement with alcohol brands in the UK, explores the views of 13-18 year olds on alcohol marketing, and finds that alcohol ads appeal to young people. Brands with brightly-coloured packaging and drinks with high levels of added sugar were found to be particularly appealing to young people.

Responding to the children’s drinking figures from NHS Digital, Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK, said:

“These findings are very concerning, especially the high numbers of children who report having been drunk recently. It is clear from the data that levels of children’s drinking in the UK remain among the highest in the Western world, and this consumption goes against the advice of the Chief Medical Officer’s, who says that an alcohol-free childhood is the healthiest option, and that children shouldn’t drink any alcohol before age 15.

 Commenting on the report from Cancer Research UK, Professor Gilmore said:

 “There is strong evidence to show that exposure to children of alcohol advertising leads them to drink sooner and in greater quantities. It is worrying that children are being exposed to so many marketing messages that glamourise and encourage drinking. Children that drink alcohol are more likely to suffer a range of negative consequences including problems at school and being at greater risk of violence and injury.”

The report on youth engagement with brands showed that, whilst there are gender differences in what appeals to young people (with beer preferred by boys and pre-mixed vodkas preferred by girls), some ciders were found to be attractive by both.

The report’s authors say that alcohol advertising laws need to be reviewed, in order to reduce youth drinking in the UK. The authors say, in particular, that advertising rules need to account for the rise and popularity of social media, where children are now being exposed to alcohol adverts.

One of the report’s authors, Professor Alan Tapp, said:

“We need to rethink the regulation of alcohol marketing. In a digital world, traditional controls like watersheds or content codes cease to have as much meaning as they used to.”

Another of the report’s authors, Professor Gerard Hastings, added:

“As well as measures on advertising, government should take a comprehensive approach to reducing youth drinking in the UK. This should include measures to reduce the appeal of alcoholic drinks, and reduce the affordability of these drinks.”

Notes

The data on children’s drinking can be found here: https://digital.nhs.uk/catalogue/PUB30132

The report from the University of the West of England, the University of Stirling and Cancer Research UK, Youth engagement with alcohol brands in the UK, can be read here: https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/sites/default/files/youth_engagement_with_alcohol_brands_in_the_uk.pdf