THE scale of Scotland’s under-age alcohol problem was laid bare yesterday when a new survey showed that more than one third of 15 year-olds and one in seven 13 years olds admitted that they had taken a drink in the previous week.
The finding, which underlines the size of the challenge facing the SNP Government as it tries to crack-down on irresponsible drinking. Alex Salmond’s administration has made tackling Scotland’s unhealthy relationship with the bottle one of its flagship priorities and plans to introduce an alcohol minimum pricing policy.
The extent of under-age drinking was exposed as the Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon acknowledged that minimum pricing, designed to curb Scotland’s binge-drink culture, is “almost certain” to face a legal challenge in the courts.
Teenage drinking habits were uncovered in the Scottish Schools Adolescent Lifestyle and Substance Use Survey of more than 37,000 pupils.
The study found an increase in those who said they had drunk in the previous week – up from 11 per cent to 14 per cent in 13-year-olds and 31 per cent to 34 per cent in 15-year-olds.
The figures raised serious concerns about the number of young people drinking on a regular basis.
Dr Evelyn Gillan, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said: “The number of young teenagers regularly drinking is concerning not only because of the potential damage to their health, but because of the risky situations they put themselves in when drunk.
“Young people are growing up in a world where cheap alcohol is so widely available,” she said.
“A young person receiving the average British pocket money of £5.89 can buy eight litres of cider containing almost 34 units of alcohol – more than enough alcohol to kill them. That’s why minimum pricing is so important.”
More encouragingly, the percentage of teenagers who reported ever having drunk alcohol fell last year to 44 per cent of 13-year-olds, compared with 52 per cent in 2008, and down from 82 per cent to 77 per cent in 15-year-olds.
The numbers of teenage drinkers is also lower than its peak in 2002.
Nevertheless, the bleak picture the survey painted of adolescents vomiting, being taken to hospital, staying off school, fighting and getting in trouble with the police was deeply concerning for health campaigners. The medical profession is a strong advocate of the SNP’s minimum pricing policy, which failed to make it on to the Statute Book in the last parliament as a result of opposition from Labour.
Drinks companies and retailers are also opposed to minimum pricing, arguing that it will not tackle the problem effectively and will break European competition law.
With the SNP now leading a majority government, this time round there will be no effective political opposition to the measure.
However, Ms Sturgeon acknowledged that it was more than likely that it would face opposition in the courts.
Giving evidence to a Holyrood committee looking at the legislation, Ms Sturgeon was asked why a figure for the minimum unit price would not be printed on the face of the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Bill.
Any price figure will instead be added later under subordinate legislation, which would not normally be debated by the whole chamber.
Ms Sturgeon said that the figure should not be put on the main bill, because it would mean parliament having to reopen the legislation every time the government wanted to change the minimum price.
In the last parliament, the SNP wanted to introduce a minimum price of 45p when the first attempt to introduce the legislation was blocked by opposition parties.
This time around, Ms Sturgeon argued that the price should not be set until the most up-to-date data is processed by experts.
Ms Sturgeon indicated that she was sure that the law would be challenged in the courts when she responded to the Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale, who said: “What would you say to pessimists that might think you are only waiting to put the price on at the subordinate legislation stage because you know a legal challenge is coming, and you want the law on the statute books before that happens?”
Ms Sturgeon replied: “I think it is almost certain that the bill will be legally challenged.
“Any piece of legislation that this parliament passes is potentially subject to legal challenge,” she told the committee. “I work on the basis there will be a legal challenge.
“My job is to make sure that we have legislation that can meet that legal challenge, and I am confident that it can.”
The Scottish Schools Adolescent Lifestyle and Substance Use Survey found that 54 per cent of 13-year-olds who had ever had alcohol reported having been drunk at least once, compared with 76 per cent of 15-year-olds.
The research also found that 30 per cent of 13-year-olds who had ever had a drink reported at least one instance in the past 30 days when they had drunk five or more drinks on the same occasion.
A higher proportion – 51 per cent – of 15-year-olds, who had ever had a drink, had drunk five or more drinks on the same occasion.
The survey also asked whether drinking alcohol was linked to factors such as teenagers being sick, having to go to hospital, staying off school, having an argument or fight and being in trouble with the police.
Of those youngsters who had ever drunk alcohol, 38 per cent of 13-year-olds and 55 per cent of 15-year-olds reported at least one of these such incidents.
The two most commonly reported drink-related effects were vomiting and having an argument.
An estimated 21 per cent of 13-year-olds and 37 per cent of 15-year-olds who had ever drunk alcohol reported being sick as a result of binge drinking in the past year.
Having an argument was reported by 20 per cent of 13-year-olds and 34 per cent of 15-year-olds.
Vicky Crichton, the public affairs manager of Cancer Research UK’, said: “There is strong evidence that drinking alcohol increases the risk of cancer, so it’s worrying to see the rising proportion of 13-year-olds and 15-year-olds who had an alcoholic drink in the past week.
“Research has shown a small increased risk for low alcohol intake, but the risk increases the more people drink.”
While under-age alcohol abuse remains a huge problem, there was evidence of progress being made when it came to smoking.
The survey also revealed that smoking among young teenagers has fallen to its lowest level since records began almost 30 years ago – figures that were welcomed by anti-tobacco campaigners..
The figures showed that smoking levels among 13-year-olds and 15-year-olds, while fluctuating over time, had dropped to a new low in 2010.
The survey, which began in 1982, also showed a fall from 30 per cent for boys and girls aged 15 in 1996 to 11 per cent for boys and 14 per cent for girls in 2010.
The health secretary said that the Scottish Government had taken measures to restrict access to alcohol in children, including cutting sales to under-18s
“It is encouraging that there is an on-going decrease in the proportion of 13-year-olds and 15-year-olds who have ever had an alcoholic drink.
“However, this is tempered by the increase of the proportion of pupils who reported as having drunk in the previous week,” she said.
“Young people remain at greater risk from alcohol-related harm and associated risk-taking behaviours.”