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Tackling teenage drinking 'one of Gordon Brown's top priorities'

Action against the binge drinking culture and among teenagers in particular was stated to be one of new Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s top priorities at the time of the Labour Party conference. The Sunday Telegraph reported that a drive against teenage excessive drinking will be led by Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, and Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary.

However, expectations of a new anti-alcohol campaign may turn out to be misplaced as, on closer inspection, the reported comments of the Prime Minister and his colleagues appeared to be re-announcements of measures already contained in the national alcohol harm reduction strategy or the new licensing legislation.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the Prime Minister said: “I want to be very tough with those shops that are selling alcohol to teenagers. They should lose their licence and they should lose it for a long time. That is what is contributing to binge drinking in our cities and towns and communities, and we have got to do something about that.”

This could have been an announcement of new measures still to come but it could, perhaps more plausibly, be interpreted as a reference to the increased penalties for selling alcohol to the under-age which are already on the statute book.

Mr Brown added in a comment which may cause some alarm in the public health community, that “We also need to get the drinks industry to help us educate young people about the dangers of binge drinking and the dangers of excessive drinking.”

Mr Brown did not specify what role he saw the drinks industry playing in educating young people about alcohol. However, he did say that he did not believe raising the drinking age to 21, as some senior police officers had argued,would tackle the problem of binge drinking and related antisocial behaviour.

In his interview in the Sunday Telegraph, Ed Balls appeared to announce a new set of guidelines on ‘safe drinking’ for under 18’s. Mr Balls said: “Currently we don't have any guidance at all for parents on alcohol consumption and its impact on under-18s. That worries me. When I was 16 or 17, I would have a small glass of wine at lunch on a Sunday or a shandy or a Babycham at Christmas.That’s fine – a lot of parents do that and that’s not where the problem lies; it’s where parents are allowing kids to consume substantial quantities of alcohol. We need to help parents get the balance right and put behind us the excessive drinking culture.”

Presumably, this was a reference to the authoritative new guidance to be offered to under 18s and their parents about what is and what is not safe and sensible alcohol consumption already promised in ‘Safe. Sensible. Social: The next steps in the National Alcohol Strategy’. The process of formulating this advice has, in fact, already begun with the formation of an expert panel to review the latest evidence on the effects of alcohol on young people, and a consultation with parents, young people and other stakeholders is already scheduled for March-June 2008.

Judging by a comment quoted in the Sunday Telegraph report in relation to guidance to adolescents in regard to drinking, achieving a consensus may not be easy. Martin Shalley, the president of the British Association of Emergency Medicine, said the proposals did not go far enough to tackle teenage culture.

He said: “There is a lack of parental control.We've been lulled by this idea of a continental system that says its OK for children to drink from a young age, when in fact they shouldn't be drinking at all.”

Alcohol industry to press for lower drinking age?
A lack of consensus is particularly likely to be evident on the part of the alcohol industry which is, on the whole, unlikely to react with enthusiasm to the idea that children should not drink.

Indeed, simultaneously with new crackdowns on underage drinking and the stated objectives of the new national alcohol harm reduction strategy, including delaying the onset of regular drinking and reducing the amount drunk by teenagers, some senior alcohol industry figures have started to call for the legal purchase age for alcohol to be lowered.

The trade newspaper The Publican reported Punch Taverns’ Chief Executive Giles Thorley ‘as adding his weight to calls for the drinking age in the UK to be lowered to 16. ’Technically, Mr Thorley was presumably referring to the legal age for purchasing alcohol, as the legal drinking age in the UK is 5, though it is, of course, the case that under 18s are prevented from drinking in licensed premises except as an accompaniment to a table meal.

Mr Thorley, the boss of the biggest pub company in the country, was reported to believe the move would help reduce problems related to underage drinking, as long as it was strictly controlled.

He said: “It would be better to have young people introduced to pubs and alcohol in a gradual and discretionary way, rather than have them go out on their 18th birthday and overdo it.”

His comments followed those of JDWetherspoon boss Tim Martin to the effect that the government's current action on young people’s drinking was ‘making the problem worse, rather than better’.

Polled for a forthcoming feature in The Publican, Mr Thorley said: “Look at the US. There, alcohol is so hard to come by for young adults that many turn to drugs because they are easier to get.”

He explained that any reduction in the age at which young people are allowed to consume alcohol should be accompanied by controls such as limiting the strength of beer available to them or banning of sales of strong alcohol such as spirits to youngsters.