Message in a bottle

'THERE are teenagers in the area who believe they can drink a two-litre bottle of cider and still be able to stand up at the end of it," explains Judy Quinn, from Dumbarton Area Council on Alcohol. "Many of them don't realise the harm they are actually doing to themselves, their friends and their families."

Near her office in Clydebank, West Dunbartonshire, a strip of dingy parkland bears the scars of the area's teenage binge-drinking problem. Empty lager cans, plastic cider bottles and broken glass have turned the popular dog-walking area into waste ground. Charred patches of grass mark the fires lit by groups of youngsters during their booze-fuelled escapades.

On Friday and Saturday nights, dozens of children as young as 10 congregate in the dark corners of the park to drink their illegally obtained carry-outs of cheap but often very potent alcohol.

It is a scene repeated across Scotland in many small towns, villages and cities. One in five 13-year-olds admit to having been drunk, and experts fear this early introduction to binge-drinking is fuelling the country's appalling booze culture.

But Quinn is among those leading the battle against the problem. And in West Dunbartonshire they are taking the fight into the area's primary schools.

This year authorities aim to launch a pilot project that will see primary six and seven pupils taught about alcohol. Controversially, and to the dismay of some parents, the scheme will shy away from the traditional "just say no" approach.

Instead it will aim to teach children aged nine to 11 how to drink sensibly. The experts behind the scheme are braced for the moral outrage they know will come, but are convinced the methods will make a difference.

The education packs at the heart of the approach use an animated DVD featuring five-minute clips of young people, police, ambulance crews and nurses speaking about their experiences of underage drinking. Teachers are given a booklet to help them answer questions from the children, and trained counsellors will visit the schools to offer specialist advice and help.

The scheme started in West Dunbartonshire's six secondary schools in August, but teachers reported that the message - aimed at first-year pupils, mostly aged 12 - was already too late.

Cathie Dennett, director of Dumbarton Area Council on Alcohol, said: "By the time the pupils reach first year at secondary school they have already begun experimenting with alcohol. By going into primary schools it is possible to give them the information they need before they first encounter alcohol. It means they can make a responsible and informed choice in a similar way to sex and drug education."

Although the initiative has sparked an angry reaction from some parental groups, who fear exposing children to alcohol so early might encourage them to drink at a younger age, some health experts believe it does not go far enough.

Professor Neil McKeganey, a Glasgow University expert on alcohol misuse by young people, believes schools should recruit alcoholics to give children a real-life account of living with an alcohol problem.

He said: "When we have carried out research with young people, they have a strong desire for more information on alcohol. Children are drinking not as a social activity but for the expressed desire to experience being drunk. They only see the fun and exciting side of alcohol.

"I believe it is important that young children hear vivid portrayals from people with alcohol problems who can go into schools and tell them about the potential risks of their behaviour from their own experiences."

Recent years have brought a nationwide awakening to the scale of the underage drink problem Scotland faces. A survey of Scottish schoolchildren found that 13-year-old boys are drinking an average of 10 units a week while girls drink an average of eight. The recommended weekly limit is 14 units for adult women and 21 for men.

While such studies are often based on children's claims, and therefore dismissed as ill-judged bragging or wishful thinking, official figures from the Scottish Executive reveal that 1,113 children under the age of 18 were admitted to hospital between April 2004 and March 2005 with alcohol-related problems. Figures obtained by Scotland on Sunday last year from all 15 health boards revealed that at least 500 children had treatment for alcohol addiction during the same period.

Doctors claim youngsters' excessive drinking puts them at risk of developing alcohol dependency as they get older and increases the chance of health problems such as liver disease. They also believe that alcohol can cause greater damage to teenagers than older drinkers, as their brains and bodies are still developing.

And police warn that excessive drinking increases the risk of teenagers hurting themselves or endangering their friends, with a greater likelihood of assault, unplanned pregnancy and rape.

But despite the dire warnings, most teenagers seem to be unconcerned about the damage they are doing to themselves. McKeganey believes many youngsters are simply copying the binge-drinking behaviour of adults - the latest statistics reveal that nearly 40 Scots drank themselves to death every week last year.

"This is why educating young people before they encounter alcohol themselves is so important," he said. "That way they can see the way adults are behaving is wrong."

It's a sensitive subject, of course, and critics of the West Dunbartonshire schools scheme include politicians, campaigners for a "traditional" education and church leaders. Reverend Graeme Blaunt, parliamentary officer for the Scottish Churches Committee, said: "We clearly welcome any sensible attempt to tackle the problem of alcohol abuse among young people. Parents may be concerned, however, if there are some unintended consequences of this kind of project that make alcohol seem more attractive to young people. There needs to be care taken not to overstep the age at which we should start talking about it."

Nanette Milne, Tory Health spokeswoman, also urged caution with the scheme. She said: "It is important that children are taught about lifestyle issues, but it is important that parents are involved in this process too.

"Some parents will have good reasons for not wanting their children having anything to do with alcohol at such a young age and they should be allowed to have those wishes respected."

In a typical Friday night scene, Claire, 14, from Edinburgh's Restalrig area, is swigging from a bottle of cheap cider. Around her, other youngsters, dressed in trainers and some riding BMX bikes, consume a cocktail of other drinks.

When it gets too cold the girls often sneak into the stairwell of a nearby flat to drink. They are sceptical about whether better alcohol education would have led to them spending their time differently.

"We do this most weekends," Claire explains. "There is nothing else to do around here so we meet up and get drunk."

It is a common complaint among the intimidating groups of youngsters who lurk on street corners to get drunk. But in some areas of the country officials are attempting to distract children from their self-destructive habits.

In Dumbarton, children found by police using alcohol are referred to the youth alcohol project, where they are offered alternative activities including tai chi, art classes and go-karting on Friday and Saturday nights. Tayside Council on Alcohol also offers "diversionary activities".

Other areas of Scotland are taking a more aggressive tack. In Grampian, police regularly raid the favourite haunts of teenage drinkers, seizing large quantities of booze early in the night. Local authorities have also used other get-tough tactics.

Last week in Aberdeen a shop worker and a shop licensee were charged after a girl of 13 was found drunk and unconscious in the snow before Christmas. The girl was found by police in a street in Westhill, on the outskirts of Aberdeen, where she had collapsed after an under-18s disco. Officers said she was lucky to have survived.

Inspector Ally Prockter, Grampian Police's substance misuse co-ordinator, said: "As both a parent and a police officer, cases such as this serve as a warning for the harm that can come from youngsters drinking too much. Fortunately, not all youngsters drink alcohol, and those who drink excessively are a minority. Our approach is to educate the youngsters as much as possible about the dangers, but also to target those premises that supply them with the alcohol."

Police in Glasgow also target adults found buying alcohol for underage teenagers.

Last year supermarkets and off- licences across Scotland were also banned from selling alcohol around the clock after MSPs voted to limit opening hours.

But alcohol campaigners argue that, at the same time, the supermarkets use cut-price deals to encourage buying of alcohol - although all large retailers have measures to prevent underage purchases. In some supermarkets it is possible to buy cans of lager and bottles of cider for less than a bottle of water.

Gillian Bell, from Alcohol Focus Scotland, said: "One of the biggest problems facing Scotland at the moment is the cheap prices of supermarket alcohol. They are really pushing it and display it right across the store. If a supermarket is selling a bottle of cider for 89p then that is cheap entertainment for the night when compared to the 6 it would cost to go to the cinema."

Nationally, the Scottish Executive last year launched a crackdown on underage drinking and anti-social behaviour by teenagers. And on Tuesday health officials and policy makers will meet at a conference organised by the Scottish Council Foundation and the drugs giant Pfizer to discuss other ways of improving health.

Andrew Harris, from the Foundation, said: "Education, improved housing, employment and environmental changes can all address problems such as binge-drinking far more effectively than trying to tackle the problem in isolation."

But the deputy health minister, Lewis Macdonald, warned that attitudes to harmful drinking would not change overnight. "Attitudes to alcohol vary with age, so it is crucial we continue with our efforts to develop a culture of sensible drinking in young people," he said.

And for those left to rebuild lives shattered by drink, the culture change must begin by teaching the next generation to use alcohol sensibly.

Cathie Dennett added: "At the moment, Scotland's binge-drinking culture is being fuelled by the young people who are being sucked into the habit. If we can persuade this generation of children to drink sensibly in their teenage years then they can carry that into adulthood and hopefully break the current vicious cycle."

Sobering statistics from around the world

SCOTLAND'S underage drinking blight is among the worst in Europe. These figures compiled by the World Health Organisation (WHO) reveal just how far our country has slipped down the teenage drinking league.

SCOTLAND: Forty-three per cent of teenagers aged 15 years old drink alcohol at least once a week. Around 56% of boys and 52% of girls get drunk twice or more in a month.

ENGLAND: Fifty-two per cent of 15-year-olds drink alcohol at least once a week. More than 55% of boys and nearly 55% of girls get drunk twice or more in a month. Thirty per cent of teenagers are considered to be binge drinkers.

AUSTRIA: Thirty-four per cent of 15-year-olds drink alcohol at least once a week. Nearly 38% of boys and 32% of girls get drunk twice or more in a month.

NORWAY: Twenty per cent of 15-year-olds drink alcohol at least once a week. Thirty-nine per cent of boys and 41% of girls get drunk at least twice in a month. Fifteen per cent of teenagers are binge drinkers.

CZECH REPUBLIC: Twenty-nine per cent of 15-year-olds drink alcohol at least once a week. Thirty-five per cent of boys and 29% of girls get drunk at least twice a month.

DENMARK: Forty-six per cent of 15-year-olds drink alcohol at least once a week. Sixty-eight per cent of boys and 65% of girls get drunk at least twice in a month.

ESTONIA: Twenty-four per cent of 15-year-olds drink alcohol once at least once a week. Fifty-seven per cent of boys and 22% of girls get drunk at least twice a month.

FRANCE: Twenty-three per cent of 15-year-olds drink alcohol at least once a week. Twenty-two per cent of boys and 15% of girls get drunk at least twice a month. Twelve per cent of teenagers binge drink.

GERMANY: Thirty-nine per cent of 15-year-olds or under drink alcohol once a week. Forty-four per cent of boys and 34% of girls get drunk at least twice a month.

SWEDEN: Twenty per cent of 15-year-olds drink alcohol at least once a week. Almost 40% of boys and 38% of girls get drunk at least twice a month.


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