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Britain’s underage boozers: UK is ‘top of the charts’ for child alcohol use and ranks fourth for vaping, major World Health Organization report reveals


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Children in England are more likely to have drunk alcohol than those in any other country, a damning report reveals today.

The nation’s kids are also being plagued by alarmingly high rates of vaping and smoking, the World Health Organization warns.

It says more must be done to protect youngsters from these ‘toxic and dangerous products’ and described their use at such a young age as a ‘serious public health threat’.

In one of the largest studies of its kind, the WHO examined data from 280,000 children aged 11, 13 and 15 from 44 countries who were asked about their use of cigarettes, vapes and alcohol.

It found girls in England are typically drinking, smoking and vaping more than boys, while the country is ‘top of the charts’ globally for child alcohol use.

More than one in three 11-year-olds in England (35 per cent of boys and 34 per cent of girls) has tried booze, which is more than any other country and more than double the global average of 15 per cent.

By the time children reach the age of 13, the figure in England has risen to more than half (50 per cent of boys and 57 per cent of girls), which is still the highest in the world and compares with an international average of one in three (33 per cent).

Girls in England continue to lead boys at the age of 15, although five other countries rank higher by this point.

Furthermore, boys and girls in England aged 11, 13 and 15 are more likely than the global average to have been drunk at least twice, meaning many are not drinking in moderation.

The rate of drunkenness among 15-year-old girls in England is more than one in three (34 per cent).

Sir Ian Gilmore, chair of the UK’s Alcohol Health Alliance, said: ‘These findings are extremely concerning, especially the levels of 11- and 13-year-olds who report drinking alcohol.

‘This directly goes against the Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines that say an alcohol-free childhood is the healthiest option, and that children shouldn’t drink any alcohol before age 15.

‘The earlier an individual starts to drink alcohol, the more likely they are to develop alcohol-related problems later in life.

‘Drinking can also interfere with young people’s physical and educational development.’

Sir Ian blamed exposure to alcohol advertising for fuelling drinking at an early age and said it is ‘shocking’ that children in the UK are more familiar with certain brands of beer than biscuits, crisps and ice cream.

He added: ‘Advertising regulations have been introduced by the government for other harmful products like cigarettes and junk food, we urgently need a comparable approach for alcohol.’

The WHO survey covered youngsters living in Europe, Central Asia and Canada, and included more than 4,000 children in England.

It found 40 per cent of girls and 26 per cent of boys in England had vaped at the age of 15, compared with a global average of 33 per cent and 31 per cent, respectively.

Some 30 per cent of girls in England – almost one in three – have vaped in the last 30 days.

More girls than boys aged 15 in England have tried smoking (28 per cent vs 16 per cent) and the rate among girls is higher than the global average (26 per cent).

Dr Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, said the widespread use of harmful substances among children ‘is a serious public health threat’.

He added: ‘Considering that the brain continues to develop well into a person’s mid-20s, adolescents need to be protected from the effects of toxic and dangerous products.

‘Unfortunately, children today are constantly exposed to targeted online marketing of harmful products, while popular culture, like video games, normalises them.’

Dr Jo Inchley, international co-ordinator for the study, called Health Behaviour In School-Aged Children, and from the University of Glasgow, said it is ‘really quite worrying’ that ‘England is at the top of the charts for 11 and 13-year-olds when it comes to alcohol use’.

She added: ‘We’re seeing really high levels of early initiation into drinking amongst boys and girls in England.

‘Why that’s much higher than other countries, I don’t really know, but it’s certainly something we need to look at and address.’

Anne Longfield, chair of the Centre for Young Lives and former Children’s Commissioner, said: ‘We should be alarmed at the rising numbers of young people taking up vaping, our position at the top of the league for children’s alcohol use, and its impact on health, development, and the extra strain it will bring to the NHS.

‘The Wild West era of vaping companies being allowed to do what they like must end.’

A Government spokesman said: ‘The health advice is clear – smoking, vaping and underage drinking can be damaging for young people and their development.

‘That is why there are age restrictions on the sale of these products.

‘As a government, we are creating the UK’s first smokefree generation.

‘Our landmark Tobacco and Vapes Bill will make it an offence to sell tobacco products to anyone born after January 1 2009 and includes powers to limit flavours, packaging and displays of vapes to reduce the appeal to children.’

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