At a recent seminar on Alcohol and the Family arranged jointly by the NSPCC and ARP (Alcohol Recovery Project), Trevor Phillips, the Chairman of The London Assembly and a well-known broadcaster and journalist, spoke about his view of the problem alcohol posed for young people in the capital and his vision for helping them avoid the pitfalls:
At the Greater London Authority, we intend to adopt a proactive role for we understand that [child welfare] is a major issue for everyone living in London. The GLA has a duty to promote the health of Londoners. Tackling alcohol and drug use can lead to substantial improvements in health. As a member of the London Health Commission I intend to ensure that your work with Alcohol and Families informs our health strategy.
London is a diverse and complex city and the use of alcohol is a significant feature of London life. London is the centre of Britain's music and dance scene, and has a thriving nightlife. For the majority, drinking a glass of wine or a few beers is an unremarkable part of their social life during the evening and at weekends.
However London is a young city with a higher proportion of children under the age of five than the rest of the country and where more than 20 per cent of the London population – one and three quarter millions - are under the age of 18. By 2011 one in three Londoners will be under the age of 25.
Children and young adults are at the very heart of this city. They need freedom to have fun and to discover their limits; but they also need protection and support to ensure that their experiments and exploration don't end up in disaster. Far too often we get the balance wrong, and instead of benefiting from the potential of living in this great city they are destroyed by alcohol or drug misuse, or the behaviour of the very adults who are supposed to be caring for them.
We all have some knowledge of the problems which confront those who are addicted to alcohol. A few of us may have been consciously touched by the disruptive impact alcoholism can have on the lives of families, friends, neighbours, and workmates.
However, most of us take the rather comforting view that alcoholism and alcohol misuse is a problem for a small minority of the population made up of people we don't know, who do not live as we do, and who we are unlikely ever to meet.
The truth is that increasingly alcohol misuse is every community's problem, perhaps even every family's problem.
Approximately one million children in the UK are living within families where there are alcohol problems. In a recent study of child protection in two London boroughs, heavy alcohol use was reported in 50 per cent of families with children on the child protection register. Alcohol plays a part in 70 per cent of all stabbings and beatings.
When things go wrong in families children are deeply affected. When I talk to young people today and ask them what is the most important thing in their lives, most of them say that it is family and friends. The family, whatever its shape, is still the most important source of support for most young people. In families where there is alcohol misuse this support is often jeopardised
If we want to understand the needs of these young people we have to listen to them. This is exactly what we have been doing at the GLA at a recent consultation which they called 'Sort it Out'. We consulted 2500 children, mostly 9-13 year olds, and as with most youngsters they were very forthright in their opinions. In a discussion on alcohol and drugs they said they are:
Extremely frightened in the presence of drunk adults whether these are people they know or strangers and
They believe that drunken behaviour leads to violence and they are very concerned about the number of drunken people they encounter on the streets.
They worry about their own safety.
They are right to be worried. The figures of alcohol induced violence show that show 60 -70 per cent of men who assault their partners do so under the influence of alcohol. The fact is that these children's fears reflect, if not their own experiences, those of a classmate or friend.
That is why the initiative proposed by the NSPCC and ARP is so vital in offering support to families.
However, parents and adults may not be the only people who misuses alcohol in a household. We know that, however closely a parent may supervise their children, we cannot control their actions every minute of the day. A further issue, which should be a concern for us, is the increased level of alcohol misuse among young people in the UK
I am sure that many of you are aware of the findings of the recent World Health Organisation study on 'Alcohol and Drugs use among Teenagers in Europe'. The signals here are unmistakable and we cannot afford to ignore them.
The study found that drinking among teenagers in the UK is on the increase. It concludes that British teenagers take more hard drugs, get drunk more often and start smoking earlier than most of their European counterparts. Britain has the highest level of binge drinking and drunkeness in Europe. 1 in 8 deaths among young men 15-29 year olds is alcohol related. This is a figure that is nearly double what it was a decade ago.
And the drinking is starting earlier. 29 per cent of 15-16 year olds here have been drunk more than 20 times in their lifetime – only the Danes are worse. 40 per cent of our boys have been drunk before they were 13, and most them claimed to have been drunk more than 20 times by that age. The figures are simply appaling.
To make matters worse, there is evidence that excess use of alcohol and use of illegal drugs go together. Alcohol and drug misuse seriously threatens the health and well being of many young people in the UK. In London the use of alcohol and other drugs are strongly linked. Alcohol, drug dealing and drug use often occur in the same environments-whether in pubs, clubs and or on the street.
Alcohol misuse in children is a predictor of drug and other problems in later life.
Nearly one in ten young Londoners aged between 16 and 29 years old used cocaine in the last year and nearly one in five women and two in five men between the ages 15 and 24 years old report regularly drinking twice the recommended daily limits.
The challenge which confronts us is to discover ways of encouraging young people to use drink sensibly, now that drinking and drugs are such an integral part of youth culture.
First we need to recognise that the recourse to excessive drinking and drugs has not come about by accident. We can't blame everything on public policy but there are aspects of what Government and local authorities have done which have not helped. The years of youth club closures, the decimation in London of the Youth Service, the loss of sporting facilities mean that today, many young people have no access to after-school activities, little access to adequate sport facilities and youth services.
But what they do have is easy access to alcohol on the streets. Many are bored with nothing to do and nowhere to go - alcohol provides them with an escape route.
Problem drinking among young people can raise the risk of suicides, criminal behaviour, teenage pregnancy/unsafe sex, and school exclusions The social costs are also significant, alcohol misuse costs industry an estimated £2 billion per year, and alcohol related crime costs the government around £50 million a year.
Even if and when we do remedy that situation we face a much bigger, much more alarming cultural problem. Put bluntly, both our media and our public figures have lost the plot on this issue, and are creating a kind of mayhem of which they are barely aware.
Last night I watched the celebrities on the latest Big Brother complaining that they were running out of food. It might have been just a case of incompetence; but actually they explained that they had spent their allowance on drink. The message – the way to cope with the stress of living with Vanessa, Chris, and Anthea is to resort to alcohol.
In fact we are now not only celebrating excessive social drinking. We are wallowing in the consequences of misuse. It has now become a commonplace in a star's life to turn to addiction because of the "stress" of having talent, fame and money. The next phase is the post-drying out interview in which we hear a story of remorse and redemption. Every entry and exit to the Betty Ford Clinic or the Priory is recorded in loving detail and becomes the source of another triumph over tragedy story. That is until the patient returns for another period of "rest".
We applaud their heroism, forgetting that another young person's life has been ruined, and that all the people around them have had their lives disrupted.
The well-publicised crises of Daniella Westbrook, Kate Moss, Michael Douglas and others are a signal that addictive behaviour is now just another chapter in the celebrity narrative. The signal says that such a crisis will make you stronger, because that is what we read in the star's interview. Actually for most kids, it doesn't make them stronger, it simply destroys their future.
A young person's first line of defence against insecurities should be the family. If a family is incapable of providing support and protection, or simply isn't available for one reason or another, it falls to the wider community, particularly the government and voluntary organisations, to help.
If we are to assist young people then tackling alcohol and drug misuse must be at the top of our agenda. We must ensure that there are specialist facilities and services designed to meet their needs and in doing this we must consult with and learn from them. In London we also have a special responsibility to ensure that services provide for the needs of children across the diversity of London's many communities.
At the GLA we have begun work on an alcohol and drug strategy in partnership with the new London Health Commission. We have recently set up a small Drug and Alcohol taskforce that includes the chair of LHC and myself.
We are taking this issue extremely. The Mayor is committed, as I am, to practical programmes to encourage change. We will shortly be meeting the Government Drug Tsar Keith Hellawell to discuss the issues. At the heart of our approach is harm reduction.
We want to ensure that resources are focused on behaviour that causes the greatest damage to individuals and communities. We want to use the strength of those families and communities to tackle the problems.
The GLA will bring together Local Authorities, the Metropolitan Police, social services, health agencies, voluntary organisations, community representatives, those providing alcohol and drug services to discuss the strategy. Although alcohol and drug use is an issue for the whole of the country a pan-London initiative could be used as a model of good practice for the rest of the country.