Alcoholic soft drinks are regularly enjoyed by children as young as 12, according to research published today.
Fears that so-called alcopops encourage underage drinking cannot be supported or refuted by the research as it stands, but the many alcoholic lemonades on the market are particularly popular among the teenagers with the highest alcohol intakes.
The study shows that the number of alcohol units consumed was significantly higher in youngsters who drank alcopops. Among 12 and 13-year-olds, those who consumed alcopops had an intake of 9.67 units a week, compared with 4.63 for those who did not.
Boys of 14 and 15 drank alcopops at a rate of 13.09 units a week, compared with 8.52 for their peers consuming more traditional drinks. Among girls the figures were 9.47 units compared with 6.22. A unit is equivalent to half a pint of beer or a glass of wine. The Schools Health Education Unit, which did the surveys as part of a larger report for publication next month, stresses that these are conservative estimates - the true figures may be higher.
Unusually for a particular type of drink, alcopops were equally popular with both sexes. Teenagers who drank them were likeliest to do so at parties or public places. John Balding, director of the SHEU, said: "It would seem that it is cool to drink alcopops in a crowd.
"Young people do use alcohol widely and alcopops would seem to be an obvious transitional step. The inclusion of alcohol in much-enjoyed childhood drinks like lemonade could be a much more pleasant and persuasive step to take, rather than the oft-reported revolting first taste of beer."
The survey of 8,500 pupils aged between 12 and 15 showed that a third overall had drunk alcopops in the previous week. This was a significant proportion of those who had any alcohol during that time.
Just over 52 per cent of 12 and 13-year-old boys admitted having a drink during the previous week, compared with just under 50 per cent of girls.
* The SHEU's cross-curricular project pack for schools and local authorities on alcohol education is available at Pounds 25 from the SHEU at the University of Exeter, Heavitree Road, Exeter EX1 2LU.