Underage Drinking In The UK: Is It A Problem?

There’s no denying that underage drinking is considered a problem in the UK, and it’s a problem that appears to be getting worse.

According to a Public Health Report from the UK Government, around half of all girls and two-thirds of boys report drinking alcohol every week by the age of 17.

Underage drinking can pose certain risks to young people. Let’s explore how prevalent underage drinking is in the UK, the potential risks associated with drinking underage, and how we can work to mitigate these risks.

What Is The Legal Drinking Age In The UK?

In the United Kingdom, the legal drinking age is 18. This means that individuals must be at least 18 years old to purchase or drink alcohol in licensed premises, such as pubs and bars.

This means that it is a criminal offence to serve alcohol or sell alcohol, whether it be spirits, beer, wine or cider, to young people under the age of 18. Doing so can result in a criminal record and a substantial fine.

It is important to note that young people aged 15 to 17 years are allowed to drink (but not buy) alcohol, but only if they are in a supervised environment and with the consent of a parent or guardian.

Additionally, 16 and 17-year-olds can drink – but not buy – beer, wine or cider with a meal as long as they are accompanied by an adult.

If someone under the age of 18 is caught drinking in public or attempting to purchase alcohol, they may be stopped, fined, or arrested in some cases.

The law is strict about preventing underage drinking to ensure the well-being and safety of young individuals. It’s worth mentioning that while those aged 15 to 17 may drink under supervision, they are not allowed to buy an alcoholic drink themselves – even if accompanied by an adult.

To avoid legal consequences, it’s crucial for young people and those responsible for them to be aware of and adhere to these regulations. By doing so, they can enjoy alcohol responsibly within the confines of the law.

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Is Underage Drinking a Problem?

In short, yes – underage drinking in the UK can be considered a problem. Every three days, a child under the age of 10 undergoes hospital treatment for alcohol-related problems.

An alcohol-related admission means having a diagnosis that mentions the behavioural or mental disorders due to alcohol consumption, liver disease, or alcohol’s toxic effect.

Likewise, thousands of schoolchildren are excluded from school every year, both permanently and temporarily, for alcohol and drug-related incidents. Thousands of children and young people admit to having drunk alcohol underage.

In 2018, 44% of children in England aged 11-15 drank alcohol, which is roughly two-fifths of all children. The figure is also staggeringly high with children in Scotland – 28% of 13-year-old children and 66% of 15-year-old children reported trying alcohol.

Young children may not realise that there is a problem – over half of children aged 11-15 in England thought it acceptable to drink alcohol at that age. However, they thought that trying alcohol was a better choice than smoking tobacco or cannabis.

Risks of Underage Drinking In The UK

Alcohol can have many negative effects on your physical health and your mental health, regardless of your age. However, some risks are specific to teenagers and those who drink underage (under 18 years old).

Underage Drinking Can Affect Brain Development

Teenagers who consume alcohol may be at risk of their brains not developing as much as they should. Alcohol can affect a young person’s brain – especially as the teenage years are a crucial stage for brain development.

Drinking under the age of 20 can cause certain changes in your brain – changes that impact both learning and concentration. Underage drinking may also encourage risk-taking behaviours and impulsiveness. Additionally, drinking at a younger age may increase the chances of developing anxiety – which can continue into a person’s adult life.

The effects caused by underage drinking may result in poor academic performance which can affect the rest of a person’s life, and limit a person’s potential.

Underage Drinking Can Lead To Alcohol Poisoning

Another risk of underage drinking is alcohol poisoning. Teenagers and young people may be less likely to know their limits regarding alcohol and drink more than they are used to or more than they can handle.

Alcohol poisoning can increase the chance of injury, seizures, and low blood sugar. Underage drinking could also put young people in vulnerable or dangerous situations.

When people drink alcohol underage, they may be more likely to be admitted to the hospital as an emergency. This can occur even after consuming a small amount of alcohol. In England, roughly ten thousand people under the age of 18 are admitted to hospital due to alcohol per year.

Some signs of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Slowed-down breathing
  • Cold and clammy skin
  • Pale skin
  • Vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Seizures


Alcohol poisoning can be fatal – especially with the combination of unconsciousness and vomiting.

Alcohol Harm Reduction Interventions

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to reducing the impact of alcohol abuse among young people. However, open communication between parents or carers and teenagers is crucial.

Establishing a trusting relationship allows for honest discussions about the risks of underage drinking. Encourage alcohol-free activities and create a supportive environment that promotes healthy choices.

Parents should lead by example, demonstrating responsible drinking behaviours at home. It’s essential to educate young individuals about the potential consequences of alcohol misuse, including impaired judgment and health risks.

Emphasise the importance of setting limits and making informed decisions when it comes to alcohol consumption. If you do allow your children to drink alcohol at home, ensure they understand the potential risks and how to drink responsibly. It can also be helpful to offer alcohol-free alternatives and non-alcoholic drinks.

Should The Legal Drinking Age Be Raised?

Many people believe that the drinking age should be raised from 18 to 21. There’s no denying that underage drinking is pretty common in the uk, with one in six young people underage drinking regularly – and 11% of 15-year-olds in England drinking alcohol once a week.

Drinking alcohol from an early age may increase the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder (e.g. alcohol addiction) – especially when binge drinking is concerned.

Raising the legal drinking age to 21 may not address the issue – as young people still drink underage, and the figure will likely increase as 18, 19, and 20-year-olds continue drinking alcohol, despite it being illegal.

It doesn’t look like there are any plans to raise the drinking age to 21 in the UK. Many young people embrace the tradition of having their first drink on their 18th birthday, and it doesn’t look like this tradition is going to change soon.

Get Help for Problem Drinking Today

If you think that your child may have an alcohol problem, we can help. We are in contact with rehab centres around England and Wales and can help to ensure that you or your child receives the addiction treatment they need.

Trust Help4Addiction to connect you with the best, most appropriate rehab treatment providers for you.

About Author

Nicholas Conn

Nicholas Conn

Nicholas Conn is a leading industry addiction expert who runs the UK’s largest addiction advisory service and is regularly featured in the national press, radio and TV. He is the founder and CEO of a drug and alcohol rehab center called Help4addiction, which was founded in 2015. He has been clean himself since 2009 and has worked in the Addiction and Rehab Industry for over a decade. Nick is dedicated to helping others recover and get treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. In 2013, he released a book ‘The Thin White’ line that is available on Amazon.

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