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Underage drinking

In the UK, a significant proportion of children have tried drinking alcohol before they reach the minimum legal purchase age of 18 – what we define here as underage drinking.* Moreover, a number have experienced drunkenness, and some drink to harmful levels.

This factsheet summarises the major trends around underage alcohol consumption, analysing its prevalence, how it varies by sociodemographic group, and how these have changed over time. It also looks at the drinking behaviours of underage drinkers – how much they drink, what they drink, how they access it, where they drink, and who they drink with.

The factsheet offers an overview of the research seeking to explain underage drinking, identifying a number of factors, including family and peer influence, personality and behavioural risk factors and marketing.

One notable recent trend has been a clear decline in underage drinking since the early 2000s. There are a number of theories explaining this fall, which are collated here: better legal enforcement, the rise of new technology, changing social norms, happier and more conscientious children, better parenting, demographic shifts and lower affordability and economic confidence. 

Finally, evidence on the health and social impact of drinking in childhood and young adulthood are reviewed, including neurological risks, development problems, risky sexual behaviour, crime, injury and violence and educational outcomes.

Click on links opposite to view each section of the factsheet online, or click on the image below to download the entire factsheet as a PDF (updated August 2016):



* N.B. Children aged 16 or 17 may consume wine, beer or cider on licensed premises when ordered with a meal. In England and Wales, it must be an adult who orders; however, an adult doesn't have to be present to order alcohol with a meal in Scotland.