Child alcohol consumption at record levels among ‘generation lockdown’

Children drinking alcohol lockdown
Children drinking alcohol lockdown

The number of children in England drinking alcohol has soared in “generation lockdown” to reach record levels, international research shows.

One in three have had an alcoholic drink by the age of 11, after a steep rise in drinking among the generation who grew up in the shadow of the pandemic.

The study of 280,000 people in 44 countries found that England was the country with the highest level of alcohol consumption among the youngest children, with rates much higher than France or Italy.

The health behaviour in school-aged children study, commissioned by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which has reported for the past 40 years, today publishes its first results since the pandemic.

The figures for 2022 show that in total, 35 per cent of boys had tried alcohol by this age, up from 23 per cent in 2018. Meanwhile, the percentage of young girls to have done so doubled from 17 to 34 per cent over the period.

England remained the heaviest drinking nation as children reached their teens, with girls overtaking boys in their appetite for alcohol by the age of 13, the data show. The figures show 57 per cent of 13-year-old girls and 50 per cent of 13-year-old boys in England have drunk alcohol.

Researchers said the trends in the UK were “worrying”, suggesting that a decline in drinking seen in previous generations appeared to be being reversed.

The report also shows England has the highest levels of vaping in Western Europe at the age of 11, with rates among girls overtaking those of boys as children reach adolescence. By the age of 15, 40 per cent of girls have tried e-cigarettes, along with 26 per cent of boys.

At the same time, the number of girls this age who have smoked has risen sharply, with 28 per cent falling into this category, up from 20 per cent four years before.

Dr Joanna Inchley, from the University of Glasgow, international coordinator of the study, said: “Some of this could be the effects of lockdown on social lives, mental health, relationships with schools: we know Covid has had a big impact on this group.”

She said there were concerns about the use of alcohol, e-cigarettes and smoking among girls in particular, suggesting this could be “linked to the mental health crisis” among children who went through the pandemic.

The figures put England ahead of Moldova, Bulgaria, Romania and Slovenia for teen and pre-teen drinking, while Scotland and Wales also lie in the top half of the tables.

The research, which examined adolescent substance use in Europe, central Asia and Canada, also highlighted some links between affluence and alcohol consumption, with children from middle-class families significantly more likely to drink.

A government spokesman said: “The health advice is clear – smoking, vaping and underage drinking can be damaging for young people and their development. That is why there are age restrictions on the sale of these products. As a government, we are creating the UK’s first smoke-free generation.

“Our landmark Tobacco and Vapes Bill will make it an offence to sell tobacco products to anyone born after Jan 1 2009 and includes powers to limit flavours, packaging and displays of vapes to reduce the appeal to children.”

Drunkenness a societal problem

England was near the top of the charts for drunkenness among teens and pre-teens, measured by the percentage who had been drunk at least twice.

At the age of just 11, 34 per cent of girls and 35 per cent of boys in England have drunk alcohol, the figures show. In Scotland, the figure was 16 per cent for girls in Scotland and 17 per cent for boys. Fourteen per cent of girls in Wales and 20 per cent of boys have had alcohol by this age.

Researchers highlighted links between affluence and alcohol intake seen in many counties, including the UK. Among 15-year-olds in England, 56 per cent of boys from affluent families had drunk alcohol by the age of 15, against 39 per cent of those from poorer backgrounds.

The gap was narrower among girls, with 55 per cent of those from affluent areas having drunk alcohol, compared with 50 per cent in poorer areas.

Dr Inchley said: “We are seeing high levels of drinking among 11 year olds in England and also of vaping, which is worrying and needs to be addressed. By the age of 13 to 15 the levels are higher among girls than boys.”

In many cases, children were repeating the patterns of their parents, she suggested, but usually doing so away from a watchful eye.

“Drunkenness is just embedded in British society in a way which it is just not in other countries,” she said.

Earlier drinking ‘is not safe’

Dr Katherine Severi, chief executive of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, said: “People tend to have this perception that introducing children to moderate drinking is a good way of teaching them safer drinking habits. This is untrue. The earlier a child drinks, the more likely they are to develop problems with alcohol in later life.”

Pamela Healy, chief executive of the British Liver Trust, said: “It is deeply concerning that the UK is the worst country for alcohol consumption among children, especially following the release of recent data that revealed that UK alcohol-specific deaths are at their highest on record.

“Adolescent drinking poses a serious threat to the health of our youth, as this early exposure significantly increases the likelihood of developing alcohol dependency, leading to serious health issues later in life.”

Dr Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, said: “The widespread use of harmful substances among children in many countries across the European Region – and beyond – is a serious public health threat.

“Considering that the brain continues to develop well into a person’s mid-20s, adolescents need to be protected from the effects of toxic and dangerous products. Unfortunately, children today are constantly exposed to targeted online marketing of harmful products, while popular culture, like video games, normalises them.”

Meanwhile, public health experts have called for a ban on the alcohol industry educating Britain’s youngsters on “drinking responsibly”. Education programmes targeted at schoolchildren as young as nine are being funded by major alcohol producers such as Diageo, according to a BMJ investigation.

Drinkaware, a charity funded by the industry, has a “freshers’ week survival guide” which tells students to load up on carbs before they go out and to drink water, but experts say they are downplaying the harms of drinking alcohol and being “selective” about the advice.

The charity told the BMJ it followed guidance fo the Chief Medical Officer and did not tell people to stop drinking “as it is considered a normal activity”.

Highest childhood vaping rates

Children in England are the most likely in Western Europe to be regular vapers by the age of 11, with 4 per cent having had an e-cigarette in the previous month. Only Eastern European countries had a higher percentage of young vapers, with Bulgaria topping the charts, the research found.

In England, girls quickly overtake boys in their appetite for vaping, as well as for drinking and smoking. Forty per cent of girls in England and Scotland have vaped by 15, along with 26 per cent of boys.

The figure for girls is higher than the average for all 44 countries in the study. There are similar patterns in Wales, with 37 per cent of girls having vaped, and 30 per cent of boys.

Study co-ordinator Dr Joanna Inchley said: “Vaping is a real concern. There is a very urgent need for action, given we just don’t know the long term consequences of vaping, especially at such a young age.”

The UK’s youth smoking rates are close to average across the countries examined. By the age of 15, 15 per cent of girls and 9 per cent of boys have smoked – compared with an average of 15 per cent across both genders in the international research.

Researchers welcomed UK Government plans for a ban on disposable vapes.

Dr Inchley said: “Steep increases in vaping among young people in the UK threaten to reverse some of the positive trends we’ve seen in substance use in recent years with overall declines in alcohol use and cigarette smoking since the 1990s.

“New legislation to ban single use vapes is an important step forward but further action is needed to address these worrying trends.”

She said: “Vaping in the UK is higher than the average across all the countries that took part in the survey as a whole.There’s two areas for concern. One is that our levels are higher than elsewhere in Europe and, secondly, it looks like the trends are worsening quite substantially over a relatively short period of time in the UK.”

Fellow researcher Professor Sally Kendall, from the University of Kent, said: “Clearly vaping has replaced smoking as a dangerous recreational activity in our children and those figures are amongst the highest between all other countries.

“Measures towards a lifetime ban on smoking are very welcome but policy makers need to act quickly to include vaping in their legislations.”

Girls more likely than boys to try alcohol and vapes

The data show girls overtaking boys for drinking, smoking and vaping as they enter adolescence. While rates are similar among young children, by the age of 13, girls are more likely than boys to have tried alcohol and vaping. By the age of 15 girls are also significantly more likely than boys to have tried smoking.

In total, 28 per cent of girls had tried cigarettes in the latest data, for 2021-22 – up from 20 per cent four years before.

Rates have meanwhile fallen among boys the same age, with 16 per cent having tried smoking, down from 25 per cent four years before.

Separate research has suggested that girls are suffering particularly badly with mental health problems in the wake of the pandemic, with sharp rises in eating disorders and self-harm.

The figures for Wales show 23 per cent of girls have smoked, against 17 per cent among boys. In Scotland, the gap is slightly smaller, with 21 per cent of girls having smoked, compared with 19 per cent of boys.

Teenage girls in England are also more likely than boys to drink alcohol. The figures show 57 per cent of 13-year-old girls and 50 per cent of 13-year-old boys in England have drunk alcohol.

By the age of 15, the figure is 74 per cent for girls and 65 per cent for boys.

The figures show high levels of cannabis use in Scotland and Wales. Scotland is third highest on the league tables for 15-year-olds who have ever used cannabis, while Wales is fifth.

The figures show 23 per cent of boys in Scotland have tried the drug by this age, along with 16 per cent of girls. In Wales, 20 per cent of boys and 17 per cent of girls had tried cannabis, with no comparative figures available for England.

Canada and Italy had the highest levels of cannabis use.