advocating to reduce alcohol harm

Alcohol, children and young people

Alcohol use is a serious risk to children and young people’s health and well-being, due largely to the fact that they are more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol than adults as their bodies and brains are still developing.

There exists a consistent trend for drunkenness when drinking among Irish young people, a trend that sets them apart from the majority of their European counterparts. In the latest report on drinking among 15 and 16-year-olds across Europe, Irish students reported drinking a third more on their latest drinking day than the European average.[i] In addition, there also exists a trend whereby Irish girls drink as much as boys, and sometimes drink more. Irish students reported that, in the 30 days prior to the survey

  • Half (48% boys and 52% girls) had drunk alcohol
  • 40% had 5+ drinks on a single drinking occasion
  • 23% had one or more episodes of drunkenness

Unfortunately, the impact of the trend in drunkenness has already surfaced as chronic alcohol-related conditions among young people become increasingly common. Between 2005 and 2008, 4,129 people aged under 30 were discharged from hospital with chronic diseases or conditions of the type normally seen in older people.

There has also been a considerable increase in alcoholic liver disease (ALD) among younger age groups. Among 15 to 34-years-olds, the rate of ALD discharges increased by 275% between 1995 and 2009, while for the 35 to 49 age group the rate increased by 227%. These increases suggest we are starting to see the effects of the large increases in alcohol consumption up to 2003.[ii]

The accompanying trend of increased ease of access to alcohol is also a source of concern. In 2011, 84% Irish 15 and 16-year-olds reported that alcohol was “very easy” or “fairly easy” to get compared to 75% in 2007. Just over a quarter (26%) said they had bought drink for their own consumption from the off-trade in the 30 days prior to the survey; 37% said they had bought their drink from an on-trade outlet.[iii]

This trend has been accompanied by an explosion in the number of outlets selling alcohol at ’pocket money’ prices with a bottle of beer often cheaper than a bottle of water. Discounts on multiple packs of alcohol has created a culture where young people buy slabs of beer instead of six-packs.

Alcohol use by children and young people can cause long term and irreversible damage to the developing brain

Alcohol affects the developing, adolescent brain in a different way to the adult brain. During adolescence, alcohol use can damage two key parts of the brain: the area responsible for logic, reasoning, self-regulation and judgement, as well as affecting an area of the brain related to learning and memory.[iv]

This damage can then impact on a young person’s thinking, functioning and behaviour. While these decision-making circuits are still forming, a process which continues until the early 20s, it is a good idea to protect the developing brain from the risk of long-term and irreversible damage. In 2009, the UK’s chief medical officer, informed by recent research on the serious affects of alcohol on the developing brain in adolescence, advised that children under 15 should not drink any alcohol.

In this video, Dr Bobby Smyth, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, and Board Member at Alcohol Action Ireland, talks about the realities of drinking in adolescence.

The teenage years are considered to be a time when lifestyle patterns are established

Starting to drink at an early age increases a person’s chances of developing problems with alcohol use in later life. People who begin drinking before the age of 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who start at age 20 or older. [v] Brain imaging studies suggest that the brain circuitry linked to motivation and reward make teens “almost hard-wired for addiction”.[vi] Early alcohol use is also associated with other behaviours such as smoking and use of illegal drugs, unsafe sex, risk-taking behaviour, as well as poorer physical and mental health outcomes.

Alcohol use can damage your mental health

Alcohol is often used to change a mood or mental state, or to help cope with situations we think would be difficult to manage without the use of alcohol. It is also used to self-medicate, and to relieve feelings of anxiety and depression [vii]. By using alcohol in this way a young person can pass up the learning opportunities to acquire helpful coping and social skills.

One recent study found that Irish third level students who were regular, heavy drinkers were less likely to use positive coping strategies when feeling anxious or depressed.[viii] Although, in the short-term it may seem and feel like a good idea, alcohol can increase depression and anxiety soon after its use, leaving people feeling low and unable to cope.

Although many factors are involved in suicide, the  link between alcohol use and suicide has been well established. Suicide is the leading cause of death among young Irish men aged 15-24 years with more than one in three deaths in that age group as a result of suicide. A national study of youth mental health found strong links between excessive drinking and suicidal behaviour. The same study provided clear evidence that excessive drinking is associated with poor mental health and well-being.[ix]

Alcohol use causes particular harm to teenage girls and young women

Girls and women process alcohol at a slower rate than boys and men. As a result, it takes less alcohol to cause the same levels of physical damage, both in the short and long term.

In the latest survey of 15 and 16 year olds across Europe half of the Irish children (48% boys and 52% girls) said they had drunk alcohol in the 30 days prior to the survey with girls outnumbering boys. Irish girls also outnumbered boys when it came to binge drinking and being drunk.[x] The trend of girls outdrinking boys is one that has been observed since 1995 and is worrying not only because of the disproportionately negative impact alcohol has on female bodies but also because of increased vulnerability to sexual violence.

And the impact of the high levels of alcohol use among young Irish women is emerging. Alcohol related hospital admissions have risen rapidly for women in the 20-29 age group between 2002 to 2004.[xi] Furthermore, while the proportion of girls aged under 18 discharged from hospital for alcohol”‘related conditions increased by 29% between 1995 and 2004, there was a corresponding increase of 9% for males under  18 – the increase for girls was three-fold.

What needs to happen?

Far from being a rite of passage, drinking alcohol may well serve to delay the development of vital coping skills, project the young person into risky situations and lay the ground-work for future mental and physical health difficulties.  We also need  acknowledge that young people generally model their drinking behaviour on the attitudes and actions of the adults they see around them, as well as being influenced by alcohol marketing and their friends.

If we are to delay the age at which children start drinking, action is needed in three key areas: the sale and supply of alcohol to children; alcohol marketing and minimum pricing. The Steering Group Report on a National Substance Misuse Strategy [xii] makes a number of relevant recommendations:

  1. Develop a system to monitor the enforcement of the provisions of the intoxicating liquor legislation concerning the sale, supply or delivery of alcohol to minors, with particular emphasis on age verification
  2. Introduce a legislative basis for minimum pricing per gram of alcohol
  3. Introduce a statutory framework with respect to the volume, content, and placement of all alcohol advertising in all media in Ireland (see our policy paper on alcohol marketing [link] for further detail on recommendations targeting alcohol marketing)
  4. Further develop prevention measures aimed at families in relation to alcohol misuse at a broad level for all families and aimed at families deemed to be at risk

Alcohol Action Ireland calls for the recommendations of the Steering Group to be implemented in full.

Follow this link to read more about alcohol marketing, children and young people

Follow this link to see the facts on alcohol, children and young people in Ireland.

Alcohol Action Ireland was invited to compile the Ireland country report for a European study which aimed to review and identify the main approaches adopted by EU partners in addressing the issue of the children affected by parental alcohol problems. You can read about his project and access the reports that resulted from it by following this link.



[i] Hibell B et al (2012)  The 2011 ESPAD report: substance use among students in 36 European countries.  Stockholm: The Swedish Council for Information on Alcohol and Other Drugs (CAN) and the Pompidou Group of the Council of  Europe

[ii] Mongan et al (2011) Can Ireland’s Increased Rate of Alcoholic Liver Disease Morbidity and Mortality be Explained by Per Capita Alcohol Consumption? Alcohol and Alcoholism, published online April 15th 2011

[iii] see (i)

[iv] New Scientist (04/04/09) Wired, and rewiring

[v] Grant et al (1997) cited in Mongan et al (2007) Health Related Consequences of Problem Alcohol Use. Overview 6. Dublin: Health Research Board

[vi] See (iv)

[vii] Mental Health Foundation (2006) Cheers? Understanding the Relationship Between Alcohol and Mental Health

[viii]Hope, Dring & Dring (2005) CLAN (College Lifestyle and Attitudinal National) Survey. Health Promotion Unit, Department Health and Children

[ix] Dooley, B. & Fitzgerald, A. (2012) My World Survey: National Study of Youth Mental Health in Ireland. Headstrong

[x] see (i)

[xi] Mongan et al (2007) Health Related Consequences of Problem Alcohol Use. Overview 6. Dublin: Health Research Board

[xii] Download the report here