Expert: Give Alcohol to Children as Young as Five

Children from the age of five should be encouraged to drink wine at home to prevent the toll of alcohol abuse in later life, one of the country’s leading experts on the problem has told Scotland on Sunday. Jack Law, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland and a member of the Scottish Ministerial Advisory Committee on Alcohol Problems, believes the practice would cut binge drinking among youngsters by taking the mystery out of alcohol.

Law, who is helping ministers draft new alcohol policies to tackle the nation’s appalling health record, believes parents should also drink more responsibly themselves to set a good example.

But he said families need to accept that children do experiment with alcohol, so giving them small tastes diluted with water will encourage them to drink responsibly.

While no-one below the age of 18 is allowed to buy alcohol, children can be given drink in the home from the age of five, which would allow Law’s proposals to be put into effect.

The idea has been welcomed by some campaigners, but others – including senior Executive medical officers – have hit out at the idea of giving young children alcohol to drink.

Law believes current alcohol education policies are failing and says urgent action is needed to change Scotland’s drinking culture.

He said: “While it is illegal to give alcohol to a child under the age of five, and the legal drinking age is 18 for very good reasons, we think it is acceptable to offer children small tastes, diluted with water, because there’s a real mystery about alcohol. It is reasonable that in the home children are offered tastes with food.

“We need to accept that many young people do experiment with alcohol and many parents do allow their children to taste alcohol at home. It is perfectly reasonable to explain the risks associated with drinking and how to make it safer.

“What happens on the continent is that some children get very small tastes of alcohol, often diluted with water. It’s all about enabling them to feel part of a positive social experience. The exact age of the child is a judgment call for the families. Parents have to then think about how they drink themselves. Encouraging adults to drink less in the home provides a positive example to their children.”

Law also believes Scotland needs more robust policies on alcohol, including a consistent education programme for children from the age of 10.

The average Scot drinks more than 11 litres of alcohol a year compared with seven litres in the 1970s. Half of Scotland’s teenagers drink alcohol at least once a month, with many drinking to excess outside the home.

The Executive is drawing up a new action plan on alcohol, to be published later this year, which is expected to contain a range of public health measures aimed at discouraging excessive drinking.

Law is advising ministers on the plan and has shared his views with them.

But his comments were last night criticised by public health chiefs. The Executive’s deputy chief medical officer, Professor Peter Donnelly, said it was “not appropriate” to give alcohol to children under the age of 14.

He said: “Parents have a responsibility to instil in their children a sensible approach to alcohol consumption. It is for parents to decide how best to do this.

We do not consider it appropriate to give alcohol to those under 14, and it is also very important to note that it is illegal and dangerous to give alcohol to those under five.”

Dr Laurence Gruer, the director of Public Health Science for NHS Health Scotland, said: “I’m not aware of any evidence that approach could be used to get young people on the track. It could be argued that it would simply hasten the stage of drinking to excess later in life.

“Part of the issue is that countries like France already have a more rational approach to alcohol. They don’t drink to excess and they don’t have lots of kids binge drinking at the weekend. They don’t have the heavy drinking culture we have, but there’s more to it than simply the fact that parents give their kids a tipple when they’re young. We have this culture of drinking to excess among adults and that needs to be tackled.”

But Charles Metcalfe, chairman of the International Wine Challenge, applauded the idea. He said: “It’s refreshing to see experts come out with an idea which does seem to work among our continental colleagues and, from my own experience, it’s worked in my own family.”