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Drinking Habits

Latest Reports on the United Kingdom’s Rate of Child Alcohol Consumption

Published:
June 5, 2024
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16 min read
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A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
June 5, 2024
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
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The UK Takes First Place, Not in a Good Way

  • Recent reports give the UK the highest rate of child alcohol consumption of any country in the world. 

  • Lenient laws and parental attitudes towards alcohol make it accessible to children. Learning how these factors add up can help you keep your child safe from underage drinking.

  • Reframe offers support for anyone looking to quit or cut back on alcohol, no matter how old they are! 

You may be familiar with the UK’s reputation when it comes to alcohol. Think of lads in pubs having a pint with their mates? This stereotype isn’t far from the truth according to research. But what about the children of these Brits? Are they part of the equation when it comes to alcohol consumption in the United Kingdom? Read on to find out!

First off, when we refer to the United Kingdom, we’re referring to England, Scotland, Wales — which make up Great Britain — and Northern Ireland. 

For our purposes here, we’re concerned specifically with child alcohol consumption, and “children” refers to anyone under the UK drinking age of 18.

Child Alcohol Consumption in the UK

Three young men engrossed in their cell phones while enjoying a beer together

We’ve established that drinking alcohol is prevalent in the UK, but does this apply to children, too? According to news reports, it does. Any internet search related to “news UK alcohol consumption” will bring up some shocking statistics. In fact, Great Britain takes first place worldwide for child alcohol consumption, with England topping Scotland and Wales. Not only does it top the list for children who have tried alcohol, but it also tops the list in terms of child alcohol abuse. Let’s explore some research and statistics and find out just how widespread this is.

Latest Reports

Let’s take a look at the latest statistics being reported in the news.

  • According to 2022 data published in a collaborative study between the World Health Organization and the Health Behavior in School-Aged Children (HSBC), in England 50% of boys and 57% of girls age 13 have reported consuming alcohol at some point in their lives. That’s more than half of all children in England who have reported drinking alcohol by age 13. More data can be viewed in the HSBC data browser.
  • One third of 11-year-olds and more than half of 13-year-olds in England have reported consuming alcohol at some point in their lives.
  • Over 70,000 children in England have a parent or guardian who misuses alcohol. This factor could affect the child’s tendency to drink.
  • The number of boys and girls aged 13 who have drunk alcohol in England has been increasing steadily since 2018. According to the Scottish government, between 36,000 and 51,000 children in Scotland have a parent or guardian who misuses alcohol.
  • The number of 13-year-old girls who have drunk alcohol in Scotland has been increasing since 2018, while the number of 13-year-old boys who have consumed alcohol has been decreasing.
  • In Wales, the number of 13-year-old girls and boys who have consumed alcohol has decreased since 2018.
  • All these numbers are significantly higher than the average number of children consuming alcohol according to a survey done by the HSBC. The HSBC average was determined by survey responses from 44 countries across Europe, Asia, and North America.
  • Alcohol consumption in children is more common in wealthy and middle-class families, possibly due to children being around parents who can afford to indulge in alcohol.
  • According to the UK government, the percent of underage drinkers in the UK increased by 10% from April 2022 to March 2023, and the percentage of them who went into treatment decreased by 13%.
  • Of the young people who were treated for mental health conditions, 44% reported problems with alcohol, and 48% of those who went to treatment for substance use reported needing help with mental health.

But how and why do children in the UK drink so much? We can’t blame the pandemic since the numbers have been steadily increasing before it even occurred. And why are girls starting to drink more while boys are drinking less? Let’s explore some of the factors of child alcohol consumption in the UK.

Factors Contributing to Child Alcohol Consumption

It turns out the UK is a great place to drink alcohol if you’re under 18, and here are some reasons why.

  • Drinking is relatively cheap. For young people on a budget, drinking cheap beers at home with friends is a far less costly activity than going to dinner, a show, or going away for the weekend. Alcohol in the UK is also significantly cheaper than in many other European countries, such as Norway and Switzerland.
  • Drinking is normalized, even for children. Pub culture — and even excessive drinking at times — is a ordinary part of the UK lifestyle. Children are usually allowed to enter pubs (which we’ll talk more about later), so their presence there becomes normalized.
  • Parents are on board. A study found that 1 out of 6 UK parents let their young child (13-14 years old) drink alcohol, and the consensus seems to be that the practice is widely accepted.
  • Policies are lenient. The laws regarding underage alcohol use in the UK are not quite as strict as those in the U.S.

Policies 

Let’s take a look at the official government policies to get a better idea of the UK’s underage drinking regulations.

  • It’s illegal for anyone under 18 to buy alcohol, but not illegal for them to consume it. 
  • Children under 18 can consume alcohol at home and won’t face legal consequences, especially in Great Britain.
  • Children who are 16 or 17 and are accompanied by an adult can drink (but not buy) beer, wine, or cider with a meal in a public place, such as a pub. It’s still illegal for them to be served spirits, however, even with food.
  • Children who are 16-17 usually can enter a pub with an adult; depending on the pub, children under 16 may be able to enter if they are accompanied by an adult.
  • There is even an old law that officially bans anyone under 5 years old from drinking, making it technically not illegal for anyone over 5 to consume alcohol.

Laws and policies, attitudes and access to alcohol are far different in the UK than in the U.S., to be sure. But why such a difference in consumption there between the underage boys and underage girls?

Girls Rule, Boys … Sober?

We touched on the different drinking rates between UK boys and girls and how that’s been changing. But why?  Data from the WHO/HSBC study showed that girls report more mental health issues than boys. According to one of the professors who worked on that study, the rising alcohol consumption among girls could be tied to several factors — their reported “lower life satisfaction,” more loneliness than boys, and, curiously, the UK’s societal shift towards “girl power.” She also suggests as a cause the “narrowing of stereotypical gender behaviors such as alcohol use.” According to HSBC data, girls 11-15 do report lower overall life satisfaction than boys.

Now, you may be thinking, all this underage drinking can’t be healthy, can it? You’re right. Let’s look into the impacts.

Impacts of Child Alcohol Consumption

Consuming alcohol as a child is far worse for our health than starting at age 21, not only for our health, but for other parts of our life as well. For more information about underage drinking, check out our blog: “Understanding and Preventing Underage Drinking.”

Health Impacts


Brain development. Our brain doesn’t fully mature until our mid-to-late 20s. The last part to mature in this stage is the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for, among other things, planning, prioritizing, and decision making. Early alcohol consumption sets a child up for future impaired cognitive function, including problems with memory and behavior.

Dependence and tolerance. Those children who start drinking before age 15 are more than 30% more likely to develop future dependence on alcohol, drugs, or tobacco than those who wait until legal drinking age.

Mental health troubles. Depression and suicide is higher among underage drinkers than nondrinkers.


Other Impacts


  • School problems. When teens drink, it affects their schoolwork. In general, teens and even underage college students who drink have poorer academic performances compared to nondrinkers. 
  • Involvement in violence. Underage drinkers are more likely to get involved in violence than nondrinkers of the same age, partly due to alcohol’s effects on their decision making but also because of their impulsive behavior.
  • Passing it on. When underage drinking is normalized by society at large, children learn that drinking is normal. Eventually, these children grow up and have their own children. Will they care too much if their own children begin drinking at a young age as well, leading to generational transfer of alcohol misuse? Research makes clear that children of parents with lenient attitudes towards alcohol consumption are more likely to become drinkers later on.

So, what is the UK government doing? From Parliament to the local parishes, is anyone taking action and advancing policies to keep the kids safe? Here are some of the efforts the UK government is undertaking to reduce the rate of child alcohol consumption:


Policies in Place to Help Keep Kids Safe


There are some policies in place now that help reduce child alcohol consumption in the UK. Today, you can be fined or arrested if you’re under 18 and are caught drinking alcohol in a public place, especially if you’ve been caught more than once. 

The UK government also implemented a set of actions called the “Youth Alcohol Action Plan,” which is intended to address child alcohol consumption. It contains actionable steps that the government has tried to follow:

  • Confiscation of alcohol products found in the hands of teenagers
  • Increased education surrounding alcohol use in schools
  • Restricted alcohol advertising
  • Increased vigilance of retailers who illegally sell alcohol to underage drinkers.
  • Educating parents via parenting organizations about the dangers of letting their children drink

The data from the 2022 study, however, indicate these measures have yet to adequately address the real issue:  protecting the health of the children and, in turn, the health of the nation.

Summary FAQs

1. What country has the highest underage drinking rate in the world?

The United Kingdom officially tops the list of number of underage drinkers, with England topping Scotland and Wales.

2. What’s the UK drinking age?


The official legal drinking age in the UK is 18, however, in many instances, people younger than 18 can consume alcohol.

3. Can children drink in the UK?


Yes, technically. It’s not illegal to consume alcohol at home if you’re over the age of 5, and most teenagers can enter a pub with a parent or guardian and consume beer, wine, or cider with a meal.

4. Can children buy alcohol in the UK?


No. While consuming alcohol is legal for children, buying it is not.

5. Why do people in the UK drink so much?


Drinking is a common part of UK culture that is often normalized, even by parents.

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