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Ministers admit to alcohol problem

WITH 33,000 alcohol-related deaths occurring a year in the UK, ministers and brewers accept the country has a drink problem, Nadene Ghouri writes.

Drink is responsible for a quarter of drownings, 15 per cent of road and 40 per cent of fire deaths. It also features strongly in suicides and domestic violence.

It accounts for 15 million lost working days a year and a quarter of all industrial accidents.

Children are hitting the bottle both harder and younger. Eleven to 15-year-olds' consumption of alcohol doubled in the past decade.

In response, the Government is working on a national strategy to combat alcohol abuse. One possibility is a tobacco-style health warning on every bottle. Another is a crackdown on alco-pops - although Government research recently showed that alcoholic fruit drinks only accounted for a sixth of the teenage intake.

The brewers' answer is the Portman Group, which is funded by the industry. The group, set up by John Rae, the former head of Westminster school, wants to see alcohol education separated from drugs issues.

It has stepped up its school work, funding theatre-in-education projects to the tune of pound;60,000 a year and is establishing joint projects with the Prince's Trust in disadvantaged areas.

It recently set up a youth task force which, unsurprisingly, found current anti-alcohol strategies aren't working.

Portman's director, Jean Coussins, said: "Drugs and tobacco are either illegal or harmful. In moderation, alcohol doesn't do any harm."

But an Alcohol Concern spokesman said: "That attitude sums up why alcohol education shouldn't be left up to the industry. I find it hard to believe we would see a truly balanced approach by the people who sell the product."

* 1,000 children under-15 were admitted to hospital suffering acute alcohol poisoning in 1996 * 96 per cent of children have tried alcohol by the age of 15 * 20 per cent of under-16s claim to drink at least once a week. Average consumption doubled between 1990 and 1996.

* Young people who regularly drink alcohol are around 20 times more likely to go on to use drugs.

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