Government urged to call time on underage drinking

HUNDREDS of young people are being hospitalised, are ending up in custody, or are receiving long-term care as a result of problem alcohol use each year in Northern Ireland.

Leading charities, responding to the new findings have also revealed they are working with hundreds of children, some as young as 13, who are struggling with the impact of alcohol on their lives.

Campaigners have demanded government action to tackle dangerous levels of alcohol use among under-18s, with calls for the introduction of minimum pricing and legislation to force welfare provisions at large scale events such as concerts. Marie Wright of Start 360, an organisation that provides support to young offenders, said alcohol is a problem for the majority of young people in the juvenile justice system.

“A Queen's University Belfast evaluation report from 2005 found that nearly two thirds of participants (63%) admitted that their alcohol use was one of the reasons why they were in [Hydebank Young Offenders Centre]. This is still very much reflected in our own experience in the years since then,” Ms Wright said. “We work in the Juvenile Justice Centre at Woodlands, we also work in Hydebank. I would say, [for] the majority of young people who end up in custody, drugs and/or alcohol are a feature, probably in about 90% of the cases.”

The new research by Detail Data made a series of findings including:

  • Under-18s have been admitted to hospital on 655 occasions with alcohol related conditions in the past five years.
  • The year 2014/15 was the highest for alcohol-related hospital admissions for under-18s, recording 140 admissions.
  • The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) seized alcohol from under 18s on 1,161 occasions in the past two years. This included seizures from children as young as 12.
  • There have been 153 prosecutions and just 57 convictions relating to minors at licensed premises in the past five years.
  • The number of off-licences has increased by nearly 60% since 1999. However, anyone hoping to secure a list of all licensed premises faces a convoluted process and a bill of over £1,000.
  • Hundreds of young people are receiving long-term care for alcohol addiction. The most recent data from a 2014 health census showed a total of 519 under 18s were receiving treatment for alcohol problems. The findings of a new census are due for release.

The Department of Health has confirmed plans for a public consultation “as soon as possible” on setting minimum prices for alcohol.

Historically, the overwhelming majority of alcohol licences were used to run pubs. And while this sector remains the largest in terms of licences held, in recent years huge numbers of licences have transferred to off-sales.

The pub industry’s representative body Hospitality Ulster estimates that the number of public houses fell from 1,624 in 1999 to 1,309 in 2015. Over the same period the number of off-sales increased from 360 to 568 in Northern Ireland. In recent years it has also become the norm for supermarkets to sell alcohol, often at prices that fall below the costs of other off-sales and pubs.

Last week Detail Data found supermarket prices on well known beers for as little as £1.52 a litre. The same quantity of the same beer in a Belfast pub costs more than £6. This stark change in the way the product is retailed has fuelled concerns that it is easier than ever for young people to access alcohol, including by way of proxy purchasing, which is where an adult purchases alcohol on behalf of someone who would not be permitted to buy it themselves.

But to help tackle the problem, campaigners are today reissuing calls for the introduction of a suite of measures including: minimum pricing, compulsory support services at major events, greater transparency in relation to the publication of licensing information, and the allocation of more police resources towards tackling the problem of underage drinking.

The call for police action comes as new figures obtained using Freedom of Information legislation shows that the number of police seizures has fallen since a recent shake-up in the shape of police districts. The number of police districts was changed from seven to 11 to match the reform of local government in Northern Ireland which created 11 new council areas in 2015. A sample of a ten month period under the old police district structure in 2014 against the corresponding ten month period following the creation of 11 police districts revealed seizures from underage drinkers more than halved from 723 to 320.

SOS NI is a charity based on Christian beliefs that offers a mobile bus based service where trained volunteers and medical staff help people in crisis when socialising at night. According to Joe Hyland, the charity’s chief executive, some young people are drinking huge amounts. “At a recent event we had three youngsters, one aged 13, who drank a 10 glass bottle of vodka and their life was seriously under threat,” he said. “In the last 10 months in the entertainment events side we would have encountered something like 400 young people. And of those, probably a good 60%-70% would have been underage."

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To access the data supporting this story click here

Details of available support services for individuals seeking help for drug and alcohol problems can be found here.

The findings of the Detail Data report will be discussed on a new Irish language programme ‘An Focal Scoir’ which will be broadcast on BBC2 NI tonight (13/3/17) at 10pm. 

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