It’s no secret that people drink alcohol despite not being the legal age – people have always done it, and will continue to do so.
But is underage drinking in the UK a problem? That is what we are going to explore on this page. Read on to learn more about the legal drinking age in the UK, the effects of alcohol, and the risks of underage drinking in the UK.
What Is The Legal Drinking Age In The UK?
In the UK, the drinking laws regarding age are easy to understand. In order to purchase alcohol, you must be aged 18 or over, and if you look under 25 years old, then you’ll need to prove your age by providing photographic identification – for example, a driving licence, provisional licence, or your passport).
This means that it is against the law to buy (or even attempt to buy) alcohol if you’re under the age of 18 – and the same applies to adults buying alcohol for children or teenagers who are under the legal drinking age.
However, the responsibility also falls on shop owners, bartenders, restaurant staff – anybody selling alcohol. It is illegal to sell alcohol to people that are under the age of 18.
However, young people aged either 16 or 17 can legally drink (although, not purchase) beer, wine, or cider with a meal if they are accompanied by an adult.
Some premises that sell alcohol may allow under 18’s entry (providing it’s a licensed premise) – but this depends on the conditions of the premises. Some will only allow entry to those under 18 if they are accompanied by an adult. [i]
However, the rules regarding drinking change slightly when it’s at home, and not in a public place or a bar, restaurant, or club.
It’s advised to avoid giving alcohol to your children or family members before they turn 18, as underage drinking is linked to a range of both social and health problems.
However, you may be surprised to hear about the official law on underage drinking at home. It is actually legal for anybody over the age of five to drink at home or in other private dwellings.
That being said – just because it isn’t illegal, that doesn’t mean you should give alcohol to a six-year-old child.
It is up to the parents to allow children to drink alcohol in the privacy of their home – some people believe that giving teenagers alcohol is beneficial and can prevent dangerous drinking further down the line.
The NHS recommends that children shouldn’t drink at home until they are at least 15 years old – and even then, it’s recommended that young people drink with supervision.
The NHS also recommends that children should only have one drink per week. [ii] However, these are just recommendations – and different households will enforce different rules regarding drinking alcohol.
The Effects of Alcohol
Alcohol can be a dangerous substance, with many short-term effects as well as long-term effects.
Alcohol abuse and alcohol use disorder can affect all areas of your life – your career, finances, family and relationships, and your mental health and physical health. Read on to learn more about the effects of alcohol.
Drinking alcohol can have many short-term effects, whether you have a few drinks on the weekend or you abuse alcohol regularly.
The main short-term effect of alcohol is feeling drunk. When you consume alcohol, you may experience:
- Feelings of drowsiness or relaxation
- Mood changes
- Impulsive behaviour (e.g going from happy to angry quickly)
- Slurring words
- Perception changes
- Trouble focusing
- Lack of coordination
- Feelings of euphoria
- Memory lapses (blackouts)
Drinking too much alcohol can cause alcohol poisoning, also known as an alcohol overdose. Alcohol poisoning is a serious short-term effect of alcohol – and can even be fatal. It affects how your central nervous system (CNS) functions.
Alcohol consumption can also put you at a higher risk of injuries – for example, slips, trips and falls, drowning, car crashes, and burns.
It has also been linked to risky sexual behaviours that can result in sexually-transmitted diseases or unplanned pregnancies. Binge drinking could also increase the risk of miscarriage. [iii]
Alcohol can affect you in the long term as well as the short term, whether it be your physical health, mental health, or other aspects of your life.
One of the more dangerous long-term effects is cancer. Excessive drinking, binge drinking, and alcohol abuse can increase the risk of developing certain types of cancers. [iv]
Some known cancers associated with alcohol use include colorectal cancer, breast cancer, oesophagal cancer, and head and neck cancers such as larynx cancer, oral cavity cancer, and pharynx cancer. [v]
Some other long-term physical health effects associated with alcohol use include liver disease, digestive problems, a weakened immune system, heart disease, high blood pressure, and strokes.
Alcohol impacts how your brain functions in the long term. It can cause your brain’s neurons to shrink and put you at risk of alcohol-related dementia. [vi]
This can progress and prevent you from completing day-to-day tasks, as well as impact your memory (causing memory problems).
Your mental health can be affected by long-term alcohol consumption, putting you at a higher risk of developing depression or anxiety. Some social problems associated with long-term alcohol use include unemployment and relationship difficulties.
If you drink heavily in the long-term, you may develop alcohol use disorder – for example, alcohol dependence or alcohol addiction.
Alcohol is an addictive substance and can put you at the risk of developing substance abuse issues.
Regular alcohol consumption can lead to you developing physical dependence and psychological dependence on alcohol over time.
The best way of avoiding long-term alcohol-related harm is by gaining control over your drinking and drinking in moderation. If you think you may have an addiction, it’s important to seek help as soon as possible.
Is Underage Drinking 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.
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 school children are excluded from school every year, both permanently and temporarily, for alcohol and drug-related incidents. [vi]
Thousands of children admit to underage alcohol use. In 2018, 44% of children in England aged 11-15 had drunk alcohol, which is roughly two-fifths of all children.[vii]
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 the 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. [viii]
Risks of Underage Drinking In The UK
It is no secret that alcohol can have many negative effects on your physical health and your mental health, regardless of your age.
However, there are some risks that are specific to teenagers and those who drink underage (under 18 years old).
From brain development to physical health effects (e.g alcohol poisoning, read on to learn more about the risks of underage drinking.
Underage Drinking Can Affect Brain Development
Teenagers that drink alcohol may be at risk of their brain not developing as much as it 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. [ix]
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 in regards to 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.
Underage drinkers may be admitted to the hospital in an emergency – something that 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. [x]
Alcohol poisoning can be fatal for adults, and maybe even more so for children. Alcohol affects how your brain works by affecting your central nervous system.
An alcohol overdose/ alcohol poisoning occurs when your blood alcohol levels are too high and can affect certain areas of your brain that control life-supporting functions – for example, heart rate, breathing, and temperature.
It should be considered a medical emergency, especially in children. It is important to know the signs of alcohol poisoning – if you, your child, or somebody you know is showing signs of alcohol poisoning, seek medical help from a professional immediately.
Some signs of alcohol poisoning include:
- Slowed-down breathing
- Cold and clammy skin
- Pale skin
- Loss of consciousness
Alcohol poisoning can be fatal – especially with the combination of unconsciousness and vomiting.
Alcohol Harm Reduction Interventions
There is no clear method to prevent alcohol problems in young people – and one size does not fit all. Different families will implement different approaches, and what works on one child may not work on another.
However, it is generally recommended to avoid giving young people alcoholic drinks until they turn fifteen years of age.
It’s also important to follow the UK laws on alcohol. If you choose to allow your child to drink alcoholic drinks, it’s best to supervise them to avoid alcohol-related injuries.
The NHS guidelines on alcohol state that adults should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week, which is the same as six medium glasses of wine or six pints of 4% beer. [xi] Young people may benefit from learning about units, so they know how much they are drinking.
Although some children may benefit from firm rules, other parents choose to offer advice and educate their children on alcohol.
Instead of punishing drinking or banning alcohol consumption completely, some caregivers prefer to implement positive practices to prevent alcohol problems in their children.
It can be helpful to talk to your children or young family members about alcohol. For example, speak about the dangers of alcohol such as physical damage or drink spiking.
It can also be helpful for children to know that they can talk to their parents about alcohol, instead of drinking in secret in a dangerous environment, or getting alcohol from other adults.
However, it is important to remember that different parents will have different parenting styles, and there is no clear answer when it comes to alcohol harm reduction in young people.
Should The Legal Drinking Age Be Raised?
There is no denying that the UK has a ‘drinking culture’ – but some 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. [xii]
Drinking alcohol from an early age may increase the risk of developing alcohol use disorder (e.g alcohol addiction) – especially when binge drinking is concerned. [xiii]
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 may 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.
Help For Alcohol Addiction
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.
Recovery can be lonely, but there is help and support out there for you. You don’t have to deal with addiction alone.
There are different forms of rehab for alcoholism – for example, private rehab, NHS-operated rehab, inpatient rehab/ residential rehab, and outpatient rehab.
With so many options out there, It can be difficult to find the right place to receive treatment. At Help4Addiction, we can guide you through the process and answer any questions you may have, listening to your story to find the right place for you to attend rehab.
Rehab typically has three stages – detoxification/ detox, addiction therapy, and aftercare/ secondary treatment.
Detox aims at dealing with the physical aspect of addiction, whereas therapy aims at dealing with the psychological, social, and behavioural aspects of addiction. Secondary treatment aims at easing the transition from rehab to recovery, ultimately preventing relapse.
Call our friendly team today to discuss your options and begin the admissions process. We can also help you find treatment for drug addiction, whether it be prescription drug addiction or illicit drug addiction such as cocaine or heroin.