Kids’ Booze Timebomb

Welsh children as young as 11 are on the rocky road to alcoholism, we can reveal. A special investigation by Wales on Sunday has unveiled an increasing number of young kids under the age of 18 being treated in A&E hospital wards for shocking levels of alcohol abuse.

Our findings prove there is a hidden timebomb of child alcoholism, resulting in hundreds of youngsters being treated each year for alcohol poisoning, liver disease and psychiatric illnesses.

Doctors warn conditions such as cirrhosis of the liver are now starting to appear in people who are still under-age drinkers, prompting calls for special detoxification clinics to be set up across Britain for teenage drinkers.

Our statistics, obtained from Welsh NHS trusts under the Freedom of Information Act, show 479 under-18s sought hospital treatment for alcohol abuse in 2004/05. Last year, the number was 531 – a rise of 11 per cent.

In the past five years, more than 1,400 under-age boozers have been admitted to Welsh hospitals with alcohol-related complaints. But the number of adults seeking help has dropped. In 2004/05, 5,162 checked themselves into hospital compared to 5,087 in 2005/06 – a fall of almost two adults a week.

Health experts blame the rise among teenage drinkers on more alcohol being available in the home. Off-licences have also been attacked for knowingly breaking the law by selling booze to underage kids.

Alcohol counsellors say more and more children are becoming hooked, with alcopops being made sweeter for younger tastebuds and with a rising number of pop stars promoting the message that it’s cool to be drunk.

Yesterday, the Children’s Commissioner for Wales’ office said it was “extremely concerned” by our findings. Assistant Commissioner Sara Reid said: “It’s clear that messages to young people – as well as adults – about responsible drinking have yet to hit home. Heavy use of alcohol not only has a detrimental effect on young people’s health, but it makes them vulnerable to crime and injury, including sexual assault and pregnancy.

“Some of these young people may be using alcohol because of difficulties that they face in their lives, but often there is a lack of awareness of the risks that they are taking. Regulation has a role to play, but education is key. Preaching on this issue is rarely the answer. Often the most effective schemes are those that involve other young people providing information and advice through peer education.”

Our investigation follows a shocking new report by the National Public Health Service for Wales which reveals how seven per cent of 11-year-old girls and 12 per cent of 11-year-old boys in Wales drink alcohol every week. The number outweighs the number of girls and boys of the same age in Scotland.

The Health Needs Assessment: Substance Abuse 2006 report also shows how Wales has the highest number of 15-year-olds who hit the bottle every week – out-numbering teens of the same age in England, Scotland and Italy. The study comes just weeks after health experts predicted big increases in the numbers of people diagnosed with cirrhosis in their 20s.

Heading for early liver damage, according to our figures, are teenagers living in North East Wales which has seen the biggest rise in the number of teenage drinkers over the past two years. In 2004/05, 46 teens under the age of 18 checked themselves into the A&E ward at the Wrexham Maelor Hospital for help compared to 76 in 2005/06 – a staggering rise of 65 per cent.

A rising number of teens have also received hospital treatment in Neath, Port Talbot, Bridgend, Ceredigion, North Glamorgan and Pembrokeshire. Aneurin Owen, director of the Cyngor Alcohol Information Service in Llandudno, is not surprised by the increases. His charity provides counselling services for addicted kids and adults.

He said: “Alcohol abuse among the young is a huge subject. We believe more and more children are getting addicted because alcoholic drinks are now being made sweeter and cheaper. There is also huge peer pressure to drink large amounts and that pushes up the risk factor. It’s a combination of these things which is leading to children seeking hospital treatment.

“Unfortunately, the number of children arriving at A&E is the tip of the iceberg. Our studies have shown that the first access point to alcohol among the young is in the home. That’s where most young people are introduced to alcohol. The second is off-licences. We often have 13 and 14-year-olds referred to us by social services, schools or the police. The worst case scenario we have seen has been someone die accidentally through vomiting.”

The rising numbers of Welsh teens hitting the bottle is also no surprise to Alcohol Concern. A spokesperson said: “There has been a worrying trend of increasing numbers of young people being admitted to A&E wards. This trend is set to continue.

“There is clearly a huge problem with children as young as 12 being admitted to A&E wards despite strict laws regarding the sale of alcohol. In a bid to stop children getting hold of alcohol, we want a pre-watershed ban on the TV advertisement of alcohol to stop it being portrayed in a positive light.”

But despite the call, other experts fear the true extent of child binge drinking will always remain a mystery. A spokesperson for the National Public Health Service for Wales said: “The problem use of alcohol and/or illicit or prescription drugs carries serious health risks. But the illicit nature means it’s very difficult to ascertain the true extent of misuse.”