Teenage timebomb: The devastating legacy of modern youngsters' addiction to alcohol
Dressed in a shimmering top, tiny denim hot-pants and a pair of towering red high heels, the teenage girl had clearly been planning a big night out. So much so that she had even secreted a fake ID in her handbag, transcribing the fictitious date of birth in ballpoint pen on the inside of her wrist as an aide memoire.
Unfortunately, by just 8pm, the evening's entertainment was well and truly over.
Having downed vodka, wine and shots, the girl was so drunk she had collapsed on the pavement in a pool of her own vomit.
Her friends were so concerned for her wellbeing they had called an ambulance. She was picked up and taken to hospital, where she was placed in a bed and monitored until the effects of the booze wore off.
How old is she? Fifteen or 16 at the most, estimate the paramedics who transported her. How unusual is her behaviour?
'Not at all unusual,' says one. 'If anything it's typical of what we see every weekend.'
This sorry scene unfolded last Saturday night in the centre of Plymouth, an unexceptional conurbation on the South Coast. But it could be anywhere across Britain - any city, any town, any village.
The nation's teenagers are turning to drink like never before. They are starting to drink younger and they are drinking more. And for themselves and for society, the consequences are truly devastating.
Teenagers who drink are lost to education, their attendances dwindling and their behaviour deteriorating until there is no option but to exclude them. Teenagers who drink get into trouble with the police, their out-of-a-bottle bravado and loss of inhibition resulting in violent assaults.
Lives are being lost on a scale that dwarfs all other diseases
Teenagers who drink are more likely to sleep around, to father unwanted children and to fall pregnant, the life chances of their offspring shaped by a parental cocktail of hormones and alcopops.
But most worrying is the damage these teenagers are doing to their own well-being.
Irreparable damage is being inflicted on adolescent livers and developing brains; patterns of addiction are being cast in stone and lives are being lost on a scale that dwarfs deaths from teenage cancers, meningitis or those other diseases that traditionally keep parents awake at night.
Today, the Daily Mail launches a major new three-part series which will run in the coming weeks in Femail Magazine, examining the lives of teenagers in Britain today.
Next week, we'll look at the thousands of teenagers whose lives are blighted by obesity - as well as the resulting cost to the NHS. And in part three, the insidious march of sexual diseases will come under the microscope. Today, we examine the devastating effects of alcohol.
Excessive drinking, drug-taking, cigarette-smoking, poor diet, an evermore sedentary lifestyle and a huge rise in sexually transmitted diseases have all combined to create a worrying first: a generation of modern Britons likely to live shorter lives than their parents.
To boot, it is costing the nation a fortune. Treating teenagers for the effects of drink, drugs, sexual infections and abortion costs the NHS £130 million a year - up from £100 million in 2000.
These girls are out just having fun. However experts say the only way to stop other teenagers from drinking is to increase the cost of alcohol through taxation
Vivienne Nathanson, head of science and ethics at the BMA, warns that the behaviour of teenagers poses an 'extraordinary threat', not just to their generation, but to us all.
'How can the NHS be funded to deal with that kind of health crisis?' she asks. 'We can't expect young people to think that far into the future. We have to do the thinking for them.'
That the excessive consumption of alcohol is already impacting on the health of British teenagers is impossible to deny. Just ask the doctors and nurses.
In England, the number of teenagers being admitted for treatment for specifically alcohol-related problems has increased by more than 50 per cent in the past six years - up from 8,411 in 2001 to 12,682 last year.
London saw the biggest increase, of 109 per cent, followed by the South-West, the South-East coastal region and the North West.
Inevitably, more patients equals greater cost, and across the country the bill to taxpayers for these patients rose to £5 million, an increase of £1.7 million over six years.
Further, more time spent tending to hard-drinking teenagers means less time for over- stretched medics to treat the deserving sick.
In years to come, the costs will grow. Already specialists are seeing younger and younger people suffering from cirrhosis of the liver.
Where a decade ago patients would have been at least in their mid-30s, twentysomethings are increasingly common.
'It is only a matter of time before the first teenage death from liver disease caused by drinking is recorded,' warns one specialist.
Statistics show that half the people who become addicted to alcohol are afflicted within ten years of their first drink. In other words, start drinking at 13 and by 23 there's a chance you'll be addicted and at risk from liver failure. (Last year there was a 40 per cent rise in under-18s in alcoholic treatment programmes.)
It is something Natasha Farnham exemplifies perfectly. At the age of just 18, her liver is so seriously damaged she has been warned that another drink could kill her.
She had her first drink at 12 and two years later was downing up to six bottles of wine a day as well as a litre of vodka.
'I didn't think my drinking was a problem because all my friends were getting wasted every weekend as well,' she says.
'I thought I looked grown-up and would drink as much as possible - sometimes even passing out. I never questioned what I was doing and my mum didn't know because I would say I was staying at a friend's house.
'I saved my dinner money and spent it on booze. It was never hard to get our hands on alcohol. But now I have no short-term memory and doctors warn me that if I drink any more, I will die.'
While Natasha's case is extreme and will shock many youngsters who think the most they risk from binge-drinking is a hangover. But there is growing concern that teenage drinking may be inflicting harm on the brain that will become apparent only in years to come.
'I think the concerns about possible brain damage are real,' says Professor Ian Gilmore, President of the Royal College of Physicians.
'Brain development isn't finished until people reach their 20s, and so it is possible that heavy binge-drinking may impinge on brain development of young people.'
This concern was explored in a study by Dr Thomas Heffernan, a psychologist at Northumbria University, who looked at the effect of alcohol on memory in 60 youngsters aged 16 to 19.
Around half were effectively binge alcoholics, drinking an average of 30 units on two nights out - equivalent to a bottle of spirits - while the others drank rarely or never.
The teenagers, all students in the North-East of England, were asked how often they had forgotten things they planned or needed to do, such as locking the door, meeting a friend or posting a letter.
They also had to play a computer game in which they had to complete tasks as they walked along a fictional High Street, as a more objective measure of memory loss.
The binge-drinkers did significantly worse at the game, completing up to a third fewer tasks.
'There is evidence that excess alcohol, and binge-drinking in particular, damages parts of the brain that underpin everyday memory,' says Dr Heffernan.
'Not only may these teenagers be harming their memory, if their brains are still developing they could be storing up problems for the future.'
The trouble is that teenagers are a notoriously hard section of the population to persuade that actions today may have an effect on their health in the future. They are young and without fear - a generation that feels immortal.
The truth is that those NHS figures for hospital admissions are only the tip of the iceberg, made up of alcohol poisoning, liver disease and psychiatric problems triggered by drinking.
In England, the number of teenagers being admitted for treatment for alcohol-related problems has increased by more than 50 per cent in the past six years
Add injuries caused by fights, falls, car crashes and other drink-fuelled accidents and the number doubles. Statistics from the North-West Public Health Observatory show 53,844 under-25s were admitted to England's wards in 2006-7. Of these, 20,000 were teenagers.
In other words, the long-term health implications of drinking as a teenager aside, the biggest danger is immediate harm or even death while under the influence of alcohol.
'Car crashes, stabbings, fights, falls and even overdoses - an awful lot involve alcohol,' says Dr Nick Sheron a liver physician at Southampton General Hospital and secretary of the Alcohol Health Alliance.
'Parents worry about teenage cancer and meningitis, but they all pale into insignificance when viewed against the numbers killed in alcohol-related incidents.'
Find that hard to believe? A night out in Plymouth in Kirstin Buckley and Caprice Cavill's ambulance is something of an eye-opener.
'The vast majority of incidents we attend are alcohol-related,' says ambulance technician Cavill. 'People fall over and crack their heads, get into fights, fall asleep in exposed places and generally make a nuisance of themselves.
'Young people who've had too much just lie down on the kerb or in a bus shelter, or fights kick off - and we have to pick up the pieces.'
Paramedic Buckley adds: 'We have to treat so many young girls who are completely out of control. It's worrying when you see them staggering around or sitting on the floor amid rubbish, vomit and urine. When they're in that kind of state, anything can happen to them.'
Further proof of the immediate risks posed by the over-consumption of alcohol comes from a visit to a youth court. Alcohol plays a role in probably half of all offences.
Consider a couple of cases heard one Friday in Brighton recently. One involved a 16-year-old whose reckless, under-age drink-driving was alleged to have caused the death of a 17-year-old.
'Girls sit on the ground amid vomit and rubbish'
Then there was the teenage boy who, drunk on beer and vodka, had slapped a traffic warden twice round the face. After he was arrested, he spat in a policeman's face, shouting: 'You were raped by your father and you loved it.'
On to Fareham in Hampshire and it's the same story again. This time the court hears of a teenage moped driver who cut a corner in full view of a police patrol car.
The 17-year-old was stopped and found to be twice the drink-drive limit. That he or no one else was injured or killed as a result of his actions was purely down to luck.
Or what about the case of another 17-year- old, who held one police officer in a headlock and kicked another on the shin when they confiscated his lager?
William Charlton, the boy's lawyer, said: 'He bought the alcohol from an off-licence. He had no identification, but they still sold it to him. If they had not, this would not have happened. He is clearly under-age.'
The link between teenage crime and alcohol is well-documented - what these cases show are the dangers, violence and harm that so often comes the way of young people who drink.
They also show how easy it is for teenagers to get hold of alcohol, and the fact they are drinking greater quantities than ever before.
A raft of studies supports this: children as young as 12 regularly drink 'to get drunk'; those aged 11 to 15 who drink consume an average 11.4 units a week, the same as nearly two bottles of wine or almost 12 shots of whisky; one third of 15-year-olds say it is fine to get drunk at least once a week.
The reason teenagers drink so much and start so young is because drink is cheap and readily available.
Children as young as 12 drink 'to get drunk'
'Alcohol is roughly three times more affordable than it was ten or 20 years ago,' says Dr Sheron. 'That is because prices have risen only in line with inflation, while people's disposable incomes have increased far more rapidly.
'People are spending the same amount of that disposable income on alcohol, but it buys them a lot more than before. Studies on alcohol abuse among teenagers and young people show that alcohol intakes have increased dramatically.
'The average amount a teenager drinks on a Friday night is 20 units - two-thirds of a bottle of vodka or two bottles of wine. The simple fact is that young people are drinking more because they can afford it.'
This affordability has been exaggerated by the involvement of the supermarkets that have sold alcohol as a loss leader, meaning discounted lager costs little more than bottled water.
In the short term, health experts say the only way to stop teenage drinking is to increase the cost of alcohol through taxation.
Studies show this won't have a significant effect on moderate drinkers, but will hit heavy drinkers and young people whose expenditure is relatively restricted.
But so far the Government's attitude to alcohol has sent out all the wrong messages. Not only have licensing laws been relaxed to allow drinking round the clock, but their efforts to work hand-in-hand with the supermarkets have also failed to achieve results.
It is hardly surprising, say campaigners. While the drinks industry may want to lessen the negative publicity associated with binge-drinking, it is simply not in its interest to act in a way which will reduce overall sales.
Of course, that is not to say that a tax hike on booze will prove popular in these straitened times. And, anyway, its opponents question why the actions of a few should spoil the affordability for the majority.
Why, they ask, aren't children and young adults learning to behave and to obey the laws of the land that restrict the sale of alcohol? Whatever happened to personal responsibility or, in the case of teenagers, the responsibility their parents should show?
These are pertinent questions. And, as we shall see in the next two parts of this series, ones that touch not only on teen drinking, but on the equally worrying problems of obesity and sexually transmitted infections.
# Tom Rawstorne
# 16th October 2008
# Daily Mail