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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 September, 2003, 15:16 GMT 16:16 UK
Call for drinking age hike
By Jonathan Amos
BBC News Online science staff, in Salford

One of the UK's leading experts on addiction has suggested the legal drinking age be raised from 18 to 21.

Man holding pint of lager, BBC
The problems are costing the country dear
Professor Colin Drummond, a consultant psychiatrist, said the measure could have a major impact on the growing problem of under-age drinking.

"Certainly, in America where this has been done, there has been a significant reduction in, for example, alcohol-related road deaths," he told the British Association science festival in Salford, Greater Manchester.

The researcher, who is advising the government on alcohol matters, also thinks it is time drinks bottles and cans carried health warnings similar to those on cigarette packets.

Saturday curse

He quoted figures to the festival to show that Britain now had a "massive" alcohol abuse problem which dwarfed the issue of illegal drugs.

Rise in alcohol misuse in 18 to 24 year-olds
Up 32% in men over last 12 years
Up 70% in women
"About a third of men and a fifth of women are now drinking above the government's safe drinking levels."

It is recommended men drink no more than 21 units a week, and women no more than 14.

In contrast he said, only one in 200 people who had a serious drug problem.

He said the impact of alcohol abuse was keenly felt in the health service which now had to set aside considerable resources to deal with affected patients.

Professor Drummond surveyed 32 A&E departments in the UK.

He said: "Forty percent of those who go to A&E on a Saturday, over the 24-hour period, will be an alcohol-related attendance. After 10pm that goes up to 70%."

Based on his research, he estimated a million people a year were treated in A&E for drinking-related injuries.

Large cost

In primary care, too, the figures were huge, he said. "A third of the people going to their GP have an alcohol problem, and very often it is not being diagnosed because no one is asking them about it.

Weekly drinking limits
Men - 21 units
Women - 14 units
"This is something we need to address with better training and education," said Professor Drummond, from St George's Medical School, at the University of London.

He said there was an urgent need for a national alcohol strategy, which paid particular attention to the young. In the male 18-25 age group, he said alcohol misuse had increased 32% over the last 12 years. In women, the figure was 70%.

The government needed the political will, he said, to tackle "sexy advertising" that made drinking attractive. Labelling on drinks containers should be obliged to carry alcohol units information and health warnings about excessive consumption.

"The scale of the alcohol problem in the UK is massive," Professor Drummond said.

"I think people are not sufficiently aware of just what the cost is of alcohol misuse in this country. If they were, they would be more concerned to do something about."


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