Underage drinking is the norm for young Britons, downing pints and alcopops a rite of passage. Is it time to end the problem by raising the legal age to 21?
By Duncan Walker
BBC News Online Magazine
In a genteel corner of north-west London, residents are bracing themselves for the usual weekend flood of underage drinkers.
Young teenagers who look older than their years - or who are a dab hand with the make-up and fake IDs - will pass the evenings in brightly-lit bars. For the less fortunate there's always the bench outside and a few shared cans.
It's a scene repeated in high streets across the UK. But while the rest of the country wrings its hands about the problem of alcohol-fuelled adolescents, Hampstead is mulling a very practical solution.
Police have told harried locals they would support raising the drinking age in the area to 21.
In a country which has one of the highest rates of underage drinking in the world and a £20bn annual bill for alcohol misuse, is this the solution?
Should alcohol be banned for under 21s?
Urinating in doorways
The problem with Hampstead, says local police inspector Bob Barnes, is it's easy to get to, its bars are right outside the Tube and underage drinkers flock to a place known to their peers.
"Urinating in doorways and alleyways is a common complaint," he says. Then there's the graffiti, the fear of crime - large groups of youths must be up to no good - and the simple fact that drinking when you're not yet 18 really is illegal.
The area's watering holes have a good relationship with their neighbours and there's little trouble, "but fake ID is easy to get", says Insp Barnes - landlords can't always tell who hits the mark.
Hampstead's problems are nothing special. According to the Economist, 48% of 15-year-old girls have a drink every week - more than any other nationality. At 55%, British boys are the third heaviest drinkers worldwide.
The argument is that children are drinking more and at a younger age - a problem which increases crime levels and leads to serious health risks.
Among them was Sinead Garvey, 18, who started drinking when she was 13 and soon became an alcoholic, but is now working with the charity Turning Point to beat the problem.
"If I didn't have enough for Bacardi or whisky I'd go onto cheap cider for 59p a can. It got to the point where I was drinking about six litres of cider a day, and anything else I could get," says Sinead.
The continental practice of giving children a small amount of wine to drink at meals is often cited as the sophisticated way to do things. French or Italian children taught to respect drink don't abuse it is the claim.
More than half of British teens drink every week
But the US offers another, more readily achievable alternative. Since the 1980s most states have raised the drinking age to 21, with bars expected to swiftly enforce the policy. Even customers in their early 30s are sometimes asked for ID.
Psychiatrist Colin Drummond, believes the UK can tackle many of the problems of under-age drinking by following suit. He said: "Certainly, in America where this has been done, there has been a significant reduction in, for example, alcohol-related road deaths."
New Zealand's experience since lowering the drinking age from 20 to 18 in 1999 provides further ammunition to those who want to raise the bar.
Horrific tales of teens killed in drink-driving crashes fill many a Kiwi newspaper column. The campaign to enforce strict ID checks and to reinstate the minimum age of 20 has strong support, including many members of its parliament.
Arguments that the UK should end the rite of passage which comes with a first, legally bought pint at 18, continue to get short shrift, though.
"There is no evidence to suggest that in the UK raising the legal purchasing age to 21 would have any impact on alcohol misuse," says the drinks industry-funded Portman Group.
Others, who might be expected to shoot down such comments don't. Campaign group Alcohol Concern also says a higher age limit would have little impact, as does Turning Point.
Consider the US and you can see why - if young people want to drink, they will. George Bush's twin daughters, who famously ran foul of the law for underage boozing, are far from unique.
"If you look at the US, where the age limit is 21, it does not stop people drinking," says Alcohol Concern. "They're still as likely to go out and drink."
The consensus, it seems, is that it's not the UK's drinking laws that have gone awry, but the way they are enforced.
A Home Office blitz on underage drinking found that half of pubs and bars sold alcohol to under-18s.
The Bush twins ran foul of the law for underage drinking
And the Institute of Alcohol Studies says the bulk of the drinks consumed by those aged 16 and 17 are bought by themselves - rather than an amenable adult - and so enforcing stricter checks would significantly reduce the problem.
Alcohol Concern and Turning Point agree, adding that they want better education on the health effects of drinking and for adults to set a more responsible example.
Until that happens there is the small matter that realistic-looking fake IDs can be bought over the internet - and you probably won't need to use it anyway.
"At 14 I was going into pubs about three times a week and downing about six bottles of Bacardi Breezers," says Sinead.
"I would pop in wearing my school uniform."
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
Having moved here two years ago from the UK, I can see that the age limit for drinking is a great thing. Although I am 28, I regularly get carded at bars, and even when buying cigarettes. I was never once asked for ID in the UK, even though I started visiting pubs at age 16
Gareth Edmondson, Phoenix, AZ, USA
I'm 17 and hold my hands up to the odd underage social pint or two. I drink responsibly, even if illegally, but I know many my age and even younger do not. Odd as it seems I would support a raise in the drinking age to 21. I think it would seriously cut alcohol-related crime which amounts to a high percentage of problems for the police on Friday and Saturday night.
Scott Phillips, Leicestershire, UK
When I lived in America, it was easier for under-21s to get illegal drugs than alcohol, as dealers do not check ID. That cannot be a good thing, so why would we want to copy a failed American policy?
Mike, Belfast, NI
With two recent alcohol deaths at Colorado universities it is clear that raising it to 21 will not work either. It is illegal to have alcohol in the dorms but a huge percentage still binge drink.
Chris Pollard, Boulder USA
The most important aspect in the US is enforcement. Bar staff are responsible, so they always ask for proof of age. This should apply in the UK. Prosecute bar staff (or owners) as well as the drinker.
Peter Wall, Newmarket
If you can marry at 16 and die fighting for your country at 18, what possible logic is there in prohibiting you from drinking until you turn 21?
Martin Booth, London
Over here, it is almost impossible to get served in a bar or get beer anywhere if you are under 21, they are unbelievably good at checking IDs
Andrea Knapp, Ohio, US
If you're old enough to vote and die for your country in the armed forces, you should at least be allowed a consolatory pint or two!
Steve Churchill, Brighton
Why should we want to copy this stupid idea from the US? In reality the age in the UK has always been 16 - it's only idiots like Blunkett and Blair that think they can gain votes by using oppressive measures against young people.
By the way, I'm 55 and my children (all in their 20's now) certainly didn't wait until 18 to join their mates down the pub, anymore than my generation did.
Bryan, Lancashire, UK
It is time to fix this problem, but the way to do it is by LOWERING the age where drinks can be bought legally, and educating younger drinkers in how to do it responsibly.
My four years working in the USA were made so much more enjoyable by being able to socialise in bars with only grown ups; joy. Yes, yes, yes! Make 21 the minimum age for entering any licensed premises.
Derek Worster, Shoreham
In Germany, teenagers can drink beer and wine from 16 and spirits from when they are 18 and you won't find the binge drinking culture there. It is a social and educational problem localised to the UK, and not a legal one.
Kathrin Matthee, Brighton, originally Germany
The police should enforce the current laws. Pubs, clubs, off-licences that are caught selling alcohol to underage drinkers should have their licences taken away.
Brian Jarvis, Hartlepool
I started drinking at 13 as all my friends were. Underage drinking is about being perceived as an adult by your peers, upping the age limit will only make this seem more so. We need to spend the time in educating children about alcohol and its effects and not prohibition.
Pete, Edinburgh, UK
If age limits were the problem then why is this not a problem else where in Europe where drinking laws are similar and enforcement almost none existent? It's the English attitude to drink that is the problem.
Ben Shepherd, Farnham, Surrey, UK
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