Alcohol is now the leading risk factor for ill-health, early mortality and disability among those aged 15 to 49 in England. It is the fifth leading risk factor for ill health across all age groups. That’s according to Public Health England, one of the speakers at a recent event discussing the latest evidence on the physical, social and economic costs of heavy drinking.
The event, hosted by CLOSER and the All Party Parliamentary Health Group, concluded by calling for a national strategy to try to tackle the issue.
A day later, MPs held a debate in the House of Commons on alcohol harm. Much of the discussion focused around the impacts on children living with heavy drinking parents, but what do we know about very young children themselves who may be drinkers, or even getting drunk?
Using the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), which has been tracking the health and development of 19,000 children born in 2000-01, we have been looking at who is drinking or drunk at age 11.
Serious health consequences
Just under 14 per cent of MCS children said they drank alcohol and just over 1 per cent reported having been drunk, with 0.6 per cent saying they had drunk 5 or more alcoholic drinks in a single episode.
On the face of it, those figures may not seem particularly high, but, given the serious health consequences associated with drinking at a young age, the fact that one in every hundred of UK 11-year-olds has been drunk at some point is still a matter of considerable concern.
Children whose mothers were light or moderate drinkers had a 60 per cent increased risk of drinking at 11, while those whose mothers were heavy or binge drinkers had an 80 per cent increased risk. When we looked at drunkenness, however, mothers’ drinking was less important.
Children who said their friends drank were more than four times as likely to drink themselves and five times more likely to get drunk as those children with friends who didn’t drink.
Boys were twice as likely as girls to report being drunk, as were children with social and emotional problems. Truanting children were six times more likely and smokers 15 times more likely to report heavy drinking.
The more dangerous a child thought drinking alcohol to be, the less likely they were to drink. Children who did not see drinking alcohol as a risky activity and who also had a heavy drinking mum were much more likely to be drinking alcohol at 11.
The Department of Health guidelines are clear; children aged 16 or less should not drink alcohol. But they do, and many parents fear absolute prohibition will lead to secret drinking and a loss of trust in the relationship.
It would appear to be common sense, too, that a child drinking a small amount of watered-down wine with a family meal would be likely to develop quite different later adolescent behaviours to a child swigging vodka with friends in a bus shelter. Common sense it might be, but there has been little robust research around this and what there has been has focused on older teenagers.
It is not possible to make statements regarding cause and effect with this sort of study, but the numbers do show a strong association between 11-year-olds drinking and being drunk and their friends’ behaviour.
The fact that likely causes of early drinking are multiple, means that counter measures need to be aimed at a number of different aspects of a child’s life. One size will not fit all.
Children certainly need to have a better understanding of the risks involved in drinking. Schools and parents are clearly well placed to provide the best advice, information and guidance to children of this age, but these robust new findings can play an important role in helping to shape the focus of those discussions.
Public health policy should take all these factors into account, driving measures that would address parents and peer groups, popular perceptions, marketing and advertising, pricing, availability and the enforcement of age restrictions.
As the MCS age 14 data becomes available, we will be collaborating with Mentor, a charity working on the ground in schools to tackle alcohol and drug abuse, developing key evidence that we hope will make a difference to their important work.
Material for this article comes from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies, UCL blog, Child of our Time, which is edited by Yvonne Kelly and Chris Garrington.
What influences 11-year-olds to drink? Findings from the Millennium Cohort Study is research by Yvonne Kelly, Alice Goisis, Amanda Sacker, Noriko Cable, Richard G Watt and Annie Britton and is published in BMC Public Health.
Reducing harm from alcohol consumption: developing a long-term strategy event summary produced by the All-Party Parliamentary Health Group
By Professor Yvonne Kelly
ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies
University College London