A new HSCIC report detailing the health behaviours of 15 year olds provides further insights into young people's drinking - an alcohol policy area that attracts significant attention.
A decline in young people's drinking in England has driven an overall downward trend in consumption since 2004, although levels for young people's drinking reportedly still remain above the European average for prevalence and likelihood of binge drinking. Adolescent drinking poses significant risks to both health and well-being, including a greater risk of alcohol problems in later life.
Fifteen per cent of all the young people surveyed said they had been drunk at least once within the last 4 weeks, rising to 23% for those who had ever had an alcoholic drink. The report also identifies that 10% of the 15 year olds had their first alcoholic drink under the age of 12. An association between age of first drinking and frequency of drinking was also identified; among those who had first had a drink at less than 10 years, 28% were regular drinkers, versus just 3% of those who had their first drink at 15 being regular drinkers.
Girls were more likely than boys to report having had an alcoholic drink (65% and 60% respectively) and to report having been drunk in the last four weeks (27% of girls and 19% of boys among those who had ever had an alcoholic drink). However 6% of fifteen year old girls were regular drinkers compared with 7% of boys.
Ethnicity was also a strong predictor of drinking behaviours; those from a White background were more likely to have ever had an alcoholic drink (72%) than those from a BME background (27%), and more likely to be regular drinkers (7% White compared with 1% BME).
New insights: 'middle class' parents under the spotlight?
The report also identified drinking levels were higher amongst young people from more affluent areas, reflecting a similar picture for adults (although deprived areas experience greater levels of harm). Twenty per cent more fifteen year olds in the most affluent areas had ever drunk alcohol than those in the most deprived areas (70% and 50% respectively).
Mainstream media picked up on this, prompting headlines that 'Middle class parents more likely to turn the children to alcohol'. The Guardian highlighted warnings that 'Middle-class parents who introduce their children to alcohol with a glass of wine at family dinners will not protect them from becoming problem drinkers.'
Colin Shevills, Director of Balance North East, said:
These figures are clearly worrying. The Chief Medical Officer clearly states that the best advice is for young people to have an alcohol-free childhood.... Someone who begins drinking as a young teen is four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than someone who waits until adulthood to use alcohol, so it’s vitally important that something is done to try and further reduce the number of young people turning to alcohol.
However whilst the findings confirm previous reports that children living with people who drink alcohol increased the likelihood of them drinking, Drinkaware's Monitor study found young people who reported drinking unsupervised were more likely to get drunk and experience harm.
Bullying was also associated with increased rates of drunkenness according to the 'What about YOUth' survey. Among those who had ever had an alcoholic drink, 32% of those who said they had bullied someone had been drunk within the past 4 weeks, compared to 22% who hadn't bullied. 26% of those who had been bullied said they had been drunk within the past 4 weeks, compared to 20 per cent of those who had not.
Regional differences were significant; young people in the south-west were the most likely to have tried an alcoholic drink at 72%, compared with 41% in London. PHE have produced a What About YOUth? local area tool.
Last year SHAAP produced a report reviewing the impact of alcohol on the adolescent brain. Earlier this year a Demos report offered views into why young people were drinking less. However its focus on social factors may give insufficient attention to environmental factors such as price and availability.