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Alcohol facts for young people

So what does being drunk mean to you?

  • trolleyed
  • sozzled
  • leathered
  • lagged
  • paralytic
  • plastered
  • legless
  • tanked-up
  • bladdered
  • bevvied
  • pissed
  • hammered
  • squiffy

  • tipsy
  • brahms & liszt
  • slaughtered
  • blotto
  • pie-eyed
  • slashed
  • off yer face
  • wrecked
  • blasted

They just show off and try to act macho. It’s pathetic.’ - Kate, aged 14.

 ‘It’s when other people in your group think, “what an idiot!”’ Paul, aged 18.

 ‘It gets annoying sometimes when the girls just sit there giggling together at everything you say.’ - Pete, aged 17.

 ‘She was crying her eyes out and said, “you hate me”. It’s stupid - she’s my best friend!’- Sally, aged 14.

‘If alcohol disappeared, there’d be no way to enjoy yourself.’ - Mike, aged 17.

The good, the bad, the ugly

We all like a laugh. And you can’t have a laugh on a night out if you’re not going to have a drink or several, can you?

Trouble is – with alcohol there’s no off-switch if you decide you’ve had too much.

You’re with a group and you’re drinking rounds, or maybe sharing a bottle or a six pack. You’re drinking quickly – keeping up with your mates.

Before you know it, you’re feeling really rough. So you have another drink, hoping you’ll feel better. And pretty soon you’re not feeling much at all.

Except when you wake up the next day and can’t remember how you got there or what you did. And how scary is that?

There are loads of reasons for not getting completely trashed.

For starters:

  • You’re more likely to make a hit with someone you’re keen to impress if you’re being yourself.

  • You’ll be able to look out for your mates if things get out of hand.
  • You might avoid doing something you’ll regret. Like getting off  with Mr or Miss Personality Bypass or having sex when you don’t really want to or not bothering to use a condom.
  • No more throwing your guts up all night.
  • You’ll get home safely and getting up won’t be so bad.
  • You’ll feel and look better. Unless your idea of attractive is a blotchy face, bloodshot eyes, a furry tongue, and depressed to boot.
  • You’ll be fitter. Drinking damages the muscle fibres you need for sports.
  • You won’t blow all your cash on an evening out you can’t remember.

The other side of the bottle

Alcohol can affect you in all kinds of ways – even if you’re not the one drinking it.

My dad is alcohol dependent, he carries a litre of whisky. The fact that my dad drinks is scary and makes me think he’s pathetic.’ - Sue, aged 18

More than 2 million people in Britain grow up in families where one or both parents have a drink problem. You may be one of them or you may know someone in that situation. You’re not on your own – we can tell you where to go for confidential advice and information.

It's time to take action!

The next section looks at everything you need to know about alcohol – whether you have already tried it, you think you’ll try it in the future or you never plan to drink.

Get it right!

If you’re planning on drinking, it’s important to know how alcohol is going to affect you. That way you can stay in control of your drink – rather than the other way around.

Alcohol gets into the bloodstream within a few minutes of drinking and is carried to all parts of the body. The effects can take hours to wear off and vary depending on:

  • how much and how quickly a person is drinking.
  • what they’ve been drinking (stronger drinks like spirits and fizzy drinks like cider are absorbed more quickly).
  • how used they are to drinking alcohol.
  • their size and weight.

If a person is smaller or lighter, the alcohol will be concentrated into a smaller body volume. So alcohol will affect a person who isn’t fully grown more quickly.

It’s a biological fact – drink for drink, alcohol will affect a woman more than a man. Women are generally smaller, their bodies contain less water and their metabolism is different.

Alcohol affects physical co-ordination, reaction times and decision-making.

People who are drunk are more likely to have an accident, get into arguments or take stupid risks. They may feel sick, have blackouts or lose consciousness.

Drinking alcohol together with taking illegal drugs is particularly dangerous, increasing the likelihood of a serious drug overdose.

How much are you really drinking?

All alcoholic drinks contain pure alcohol (ethanol) in varying amounts.

Their strength is shown on the label by a number followed by Alcohol %vol, %vol or %ABV. The higher the percentage, the stronger the drink.

Alcohol can also be measured in units. One unit is equivalent to 10ml (1cl) of pure alcohol.

Each of the following contains one unit:

  • A half pint of ordinary strength lager/beer/cider (3.5% ABV).
  • A small glass of wine (9% ABV) Note: Many wines are 11 or 12% ABV.
  • A 25ml pub measure of spirit.

If a young person is going to drink, they should drink well below the benchmarks for fully grown adults. These adult benchmarks are: between 3 and 4 units or fewer in any day when alcohol is drunk for men and between 2 and 3 units or fewer for women.

The hard facts

When you’re thinking of drinking, keep the following in mind.

  • Around half of all pedestrians aged 16–60 killed in road accidents have more booze in their bloodstream than the legal drink-drive limit.
  • 1000 children under the age of 15 are admitted to hospital each year with acute alcohol poisoning.
  • All need emergency treatment.
  • Around half of all adults admitted to hospital with head injuries are drunk.
  • Alcohol is a factor in at least 7% of accidental drownings and 40% of household fires.
  • You can get a criminal record for offences of drunkenness. Being drunk will be no excuse if you end up in court on a charge of criminal damage or violence.
  • In 1994, 57,800 people were found guilty or cautioned for drunkenness. The peak age of offenders was 18.

Some types of drink preferred by young people are much stronger than average, for example strong beers and ciders. There can be as much alcohol in a 330ml bottle of alco-pop as in a generous shot of whisky.

What to do in an emergency

It is important to know what top do if someone becomes unconscious after drinking too much alcohol.

  • Dial 999 straight away and ask for an ambulance.
  • Never feel too ashamed to involve the emergency services.
  • Place them in the recovery position (see picture below) so they won’t choke if they vomit.
  • Check their breathing. Be prepared to do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
  • Keep them warm, but not too hot.
  • Stay with them at all times. If you need to leave to call an ambulance, go straight back.

If someone becomes unconscious they should be gently moved into the recovery position so their tongue cannot fall back and prevent breathing.

If someone is heavily under the influence of alcohol, don’t leave them to sleep it off alone. There is a risk of choking if they vomit. Keep an eye on them, make sure they sleep on their side, and check that they keep breathing.

See also the section Accident and Emergency

What the law says 

Under 5 - It is illegal to give an alcoholic drink to a child under 5 except under medical supervision in an emergency.

Under 14 - You cannot go into the bar of a pub unless it has a ‘children’s certificate’. If it does not have one, you can only go into parts of licensed premises where alcohol is EITHER sold but not drunk (e.g. a sales point for consumption away from the pub), OR drunk but not sold (e.g. a garden or family room).

14 0R 15 - You can go anywhere in a pub, but not drink alcohol.

16 OR 17 - You can buy or be bought beer or cider to drink with a meal, but not in a bar (i.e. in an area specifically set aside for meals).

UNDER 18 - Except for 16- or 17-year-olds having a meal in a pub (see above), it is against the law for anyone under 18 to buy alcohol in a pub, off-licence, supermarket or other outlet, or for anyone to buy alcohol in a pub for someone under 18.

Some towns and cities have local bye-laws banning drinking alcohol in public.

Tips for talking

Conversations about alcohol can all too easily turn into lectures, accusations or rows. But remember, young people and parents can both gain from having calm discussions.

Discussions will be easier if:

  • parents show that their main concern is their child’s health, safety and well-being.
  • you both try to explain your feelings and listen carefully to each other’s point of view.
  • you talk with each other, not at each other.
  • you are both prepared to come to a compromise.

At what age should a young person start drinking?

Parents may be concerned about:

  • their child’s safety.
  • the possible effects of alcohol.
  • their child being pressurised by friends.
  • strong beliefs about not drinking alcohol.

A young person may:

  • be curious about alcohol.
  • not want to be left out.
  • want to drink alcohol because their friends say that their parents let them.
  • want to do something that adults do.

The common ground here could be: the young person reaching 21 without being rushed to hospital and without being left out by their friends.

Parties at home?

Before having a party, it’s important for young people and parents to set some ground rules.

Possible issues to talk about and agree on include:

  • Is alcohol going to be provided? If so, what types?
  • How will the young person/parent deal with party-goers who bring drinks that you’ve agreed won’t be available?
  • What can be done to help prevent drink-related trouble?
  • Will the party be open house or by invite only?
  • Should parents be around – but in the background?
  • Who will clear up and when?

By agreeing ground rules the young person and their friends can have a good time, without their parents having a nervous breakdown.

Getting home safely after a night out

A young person and their parents could make a pact which is agreeable to both parties.

Your pact could be:

  • neither will drive if they have been drinking.
  • neither will be a passenger if the driver has been drinking.
  • the young person will not spend their cab fare home on other things.
  • the young person will tell their parent where they are going.
  • the parent will try not to interfere in the young person’s social life.

Getting further information and advice

Alcohol Concern - 0171 928 7377 - For general information about alcohol.

National Alcohol Helpline - 0800 917 8282 - All calls are free. For confidential information, help and adviceif you are worried about a young person’s drinking, the drinking of someone else in the family, or your own drinking.

Al-Anon Family Groups 0171 403 0888 - For the families of people with drinking problems.

Alateen Groups 0171 403 0888 - For teenagers in families where someone has a drinking problem.

Your local health promotion unit or alcohol advisory service for general information about alcohol. You’ll find their number in the phone book.

The Health Education Authority produces a range of leaflets about alcohol, including:

  • A parent's guide to drugs and alcohol.
  • Say when... how much is too much?
  • Think about drink.
  • Your drink and you – a leaflet targeting the Caribbean community.
  • Alcohol: The facts – a leaflet aimed at South Asian adults.

To order copies of any of these leaflets phone Marston Book Services on 01235 465 565. Your local health promotion unit (in the phone book under Health Promotion Unit or Health Education Unit) may also have copies.

Information kindly provided by Health Promotion England.