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Prevalence of underage drinking

The main source of information on underage drinking in England is the Health and Social Care Information Centre’s Smoking, drinking and drug use among young people in England (SDD) survey. This is a large nationally representative survey administered to 11–15-year-olds through schools. NHS National Services Scotland carries out an equivalent survey for Scotland, polling 13 and 15-year-olds in the Scottish Schools Adolescent Lifestyle and Substance Use Survey (SALSUS).

Underage drinking remains fairly prevalent: according to the most recent data, around two-fifths (38%) of English 11–15-year-olds have tried alcohol.[1] In Scotland, the figure is 32% for 13-year-olds and 70% for 15-year-olds.[2] However, in both countries, there is evidence that this has been falling, having peaked around 2002–2003. Moreover, the decline appears to be accelerating, with sharper drops since 2009.



While the SDD focuses on 11–15-year-olds, it is important to remember that alcohol consumption is much higher among 16 and 17-year-olds. Almost two-thirds (64%) of 17-year-old boys and almost half (48%) of girls drink on a weekly basis.



As the chart above shows, boys and girls are similarly likely to drink until the age of 16, at which point boys become much more likely to drink. However, the recent decline in the prevalence of underage drinking appears to apply equally to both sexes.



The relationship between socioeconomic status and underage drinking is less clear. In England, children from the most deprived quintile are less likely to drink than those from more affluent backgrounds.



However, in Scotland alcohol use is equally prevalent across children of all socioeconomic groups.



There are substantial differences in the rate of underage drinking across different ethnicities. White children are by far the most likely to try alcohol, with 42% of 11–15-year-olds having done so. By contrast, 21% of black children and 10% of Asians have tried drinking.



Comparisons with other countries

It can be tricky to put UK underage drinking in international perspective, given differences in definitions and survey methodology. The most reliable source of such comparisons is the European School Survey project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD).

According to the most recent ESPAD survey, carried out in 2011, young people’s drinking in the UK is well above the European average on a number of metrics.[3] 85% of 15–16-year-olds in the UK had drunk alcohol in the past 12 months, while the European average is 79%. 65% had drunk alcohol in the past 30 days, compared to 57% across the whole of Europe. 55% of British respondents reported ever having been drunk, while 47% had done so in the rest of the continent.

However, it is important to be cautious in interpreting these numbers. Firstly, as the data above shows, young people’s drinking in the UK has fallen quite substantially since 2011, so the last ESPAD results may show an outdated picture. Second, the ESPAD report notes a low response rate (6%) from British schools to the 2011 survey, though it maintains that the sample is sufficient to make valid comparisons with other countries, as a “precautionary measure”, it suggests that comparability may be “limited”.[4]



Next: What do underage drinkers drink?

[1] HSCIC (2015), Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use Among Young People in England – 2014, Table 5.1

[2] ISD Scotland (2014), Scottish Schools Adolescent Lifestyle and Substance Use Survey, Table A1

[3] 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)

[4] Hibell et al, op. cit., p. 61