It is far from certain that alcopops, with their high sugar content and trendy packaging, are to blame for rising levels of alcohol consumption among young people, said Douglas Cameron, a senior lecturer on substance misuse at Leicester University.
"Alcopops are not a problem in themselves," he said. He argued that because alcohol is a drug apparently condoned by society, youngsters were tempted to experiment with it. "The problem that needs to be addressed is our attitude to alcohol use as a whole."
Academics were the only delegates to defend the fizzy drinks at the Alcopops: New Drinks New Danger conference held at Leicester University.
Conference chairman Trevor McCarthy, of Leicestershire Drug Advice Centre, said: "This was a chance for manufacturers to stand up and make their case. If they think they can ignore the debate and it will go away they are sadly mistaken."
Delegates, including health officials and drink and drugs advice workers, heard the results of a new study into alcopops, revealing their popularity with under-age drinkers. Alasdair Forsyth of Glasgow University questioned 1, 308 14 and 15-year-olds at five Dundee schools; nearly one in five said alcopops were their favourite alcoholic drink. And Dr Forsyth found that more of the teenagers admitted to having been drunk; 68 per cent compared to 60.1 in 1994.
The conference also heard claims that alcopops were being marketed as a fashionable accessory to illegal drugs, with brand names and psychedelic packaging which were designed to mirror trends in the drugs scene.
Sarah Burger, director of Drink-line, a telephone advice line, said: "In my day you had to grit your teeth when you started drinking alcohol. The taste of it acted as a deterrent. With alcopops you have an alcoholic drink that no longer does that. It is more likely that young people will drink more and earlier. Most people with drink problems later in life say they started drinking when very young."
A spokesman for Bass Charrington, which has 70 per cent of the alcopops market, said: "We were asked to speak on behalf of the drinks industry, and while we could talk about our product, Hooper's Hooch, we couldn't represent other manufacturers."