2. How is alcohol harmful to children and young people?
2.1 Alcohol consumption during any stage of childhood can have a harmful effect on a child’s development. Children and young people are more vulnerable than adults to the acute and intoxicating effects of alcohol due to their physical immaturity and lower levels of tolerance, especially when combined with the increased impulsivity and greater propensity for risk-taking behaviour associated with adolescence.
2.2 Binge drinking and heavy alcohol use in young people is associated with a range of adverse short-term consequences including vomiting, injuries, mental health problems and self-harm. Children and young people who drink heavily may experience adverse effects on the brain, liver, bone, growth and endocrine development.
2.3 Drinking alcohol at a young age can cause children and young people to suffer from the same chronic health harms as adults do but at a younger age. There were three alcohol-specific deaths in those under 25 in 2020.
2.4 There are a variety of other less obvious alcohol-related harms which have a particular impact on children and young people in Scotland including poorer mental health and wellbeing, and the impact underage drinking can have on a young person’s education.
2.5 We know that there is a link between young people’s mental health and wellbeing and alcohol consumption. The 2018 SALSUS report showed that pupils (13 and 15 year olds) with poorer mental health and wellbeing were more likely to have drunk alcohol in the last week than those with better mental health and wellbeing.
2.6 In 2021, there were 73 suicides among 15-24 year olds compared with 54 in 2015. Evidence has suggested that drinking prior to age 14 has been shown to be associated with a number of risks, including suicidal thoughts and attempts.
2.7 Underage drinking can also harm a young person’s ability to learn or participate in school effectively. The 2018 SALSUS survey showed that pupils who had ever been excluded from secondary school were more likely to have drunk alcohol in the last week than those who had not. This also highlighted a strong correlation between those who drank alcohol and those who were more likely to truant. There is evidence of a link between binge drinking in adolescence and lower educational attainment in adulthood.
2.8 Evidence also shows that the consumption of alcohol by young people and offending are closely linked. In 2017, a survey of young people in custody in Scotland showed that over half of those surveyed (56%) reported being drunk at the time of their offence. In comparison, the 2019 Prison Survey (for adults) showed that 40% of those who took part reported being drunk at the time of their offence. This reflects previous evidence demonstrating that young people who drink frequently or binge drink are more likely to be involved in fights, to sustain injuries from fighting and to commit violent offences.
Harms to children and young people – longer term harms
2.9 People who start drinking as children and young people, and continue into adulthood, are exposed to the toxic effects of alcohol for a longer period of time than if they started as adults. Long-term alcohol consumption increases the risk of a range of chronic diseases such as cancer, liver cirrhosis, heart disease and stroke. Development of these conditions is linked to current and past alcohol consumption, and with certain types of cancer, risk increases with any amount of alcohol consumed on regular basis.
2.10 Evidence indicates that drinking behaviours adopted in the formative teenage years track strongly into adult life. Those who binge drink in adolescence are more likely to be binge drinkers as adults. Early age of drinking onset is associated with an increased likelihood of problematic drinking or dependence in adolescence and adulthood, and also with dependence at a younger age. Vulnerability to alcohol abuse and dependence is greatest among adolescents who begin drinking before the age of 15.
2.11 The range of significant harms that children and young people experience due to alcohol underline why the UK Chief Medical Officers advise that no alcohol should be consumed under the age of 18.
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