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Party time for alcopop generation

Katie Stones reports on new evidence of under-age drinking this Christmas

Most secondary school pupils are likely to have drunk alcohol when they return to school after Christmas and for one in seven the reason will have been "to get drunk".

A typical under-age drinker this festive season is likely to be female and white and have got the alcohol either at home, the pub or the off-licence. Girls are more likely than boys to drink alcopops (sweet, fizzy drinks which are packaged like soft drinks but contain alcohol).

This portrait of the nation's youth is borne out by a survey of more than 4,000 primary and secondary schoolchildren in south London by the Addictive Behaviour Centre of Roehampton Institute, London. Of 2,440 children aged 11 to 16 who completed questionnaires a quarter reported having had a taste of alcohol and over 60 per cent said they had had a proper drink. Only six per cent had never tasted alcohol.

The average age for children to experience their first taste of alcohol is 11 or 12, but those who have had a proper alcoholic drink are, on average, 14 or 15.

The most popular choice of young drinkers is wine, followed by beer or lager and alcopops. Whereas just 10 per cent of the secondary schoolboys had drunk an alcoholic lemonade, 23 per cent of the girls had.

Parties are the most popular venue for drinking, mentioned by 44 per cent, followed by their own home (41 per cent) and pubs, clubs and bars (26 per cent). Almost half said enjoyment was the point of drinking, but 14 per cent said the reason was to get drunk and 12 per cent wanted to experiment.

Over half consider alcohol either easy or very easy to obtain with 21 per cent of young drinkers buying it at pubs and clubs and 19 per cent from off-licences.

Regular drinkers try a greater number of illicit drugs than irregular drinkers. Girls are more likely to be regular drinkers than boys and whereas one-third of white children are regular drinkers just one in 10 non-white children are.

Project director Louise O'Connor said: "Over Christmas, because young people are going to more parties, I think alcohol is more likely to be a problem. There'll be more available. Alcohol is more difficult to deal with because it's a more acceptable and available drug. It needs its own focus when talking about its effects and the circumstances when young people might find they are drinking too much, but it has to be addressed along with other drugs so that they understand the issue isn't just illegal drugs."

Ms O'Connor suggested that the boom in the alcopop market is responsible for attracting under-16s to alcohol. "Alcopops are sweet, so it's an easier jump from non-alcoholic lemonade to alcoholic lemonade and the packaging makes it look fun."

The survey also found that 17 per cent of 11 to 16-year-olds have tried an illicit drug, mostly cannabis. More young people had tried cannabis than actually reported ever having tried a drug, suggesting that some young people do not view cannabis as a drug. After cannabis, amphetamines, amyl nitrate and LSD were the most commonly used drugs.

Research in primary schools found that awareness of drug dealing emerges around the age of seven or eight, that most children associate "drugs" with illegal substances and that the belief that "drugs are bad for you" develops with age.

Young people who have smoked had, on average, tried their first cigarette just before their twelfth birthday. But 46 per cent of secondary school pupils had never smoked and only 27 per cent had smoked properly, with a fifth of the sample having just had a puff.

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