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Child's Play


Underage drinking—way under.
Photo via thinkstockphotos

By Donel DeFreese


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Back in 1965, a report by the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) claimed that average American kids didn't dare to down their first drink until they were about 17 ½ years old. Times have changed since then, of course. By 2003, most kids were having their first drinks before they were 14, a number which steadily continues to drop. Overseas, the situation is even worse. While the UK has made scant progress in its efforts to curtail underage drinking, a recent news story in Scotland about an alcoholic eight-year-old girl threw the whole country into a furor. The girl was first diagnosed with an alcoholic disorder after she approached a teacher seeking help with what she termed a "serious" drinking problem. The child admitted that she was raised by a family of problem drinkers, where it was the norm to slam a couple of shots before dinner, or drink an "alcopop" to quell her thirst instead of juice or a glass of water. Her case cast a spotlight on a long-time pattern of childhood drinking in Scotland, where 120 children under 14 were hospitalized for alcohol-related conditions in a single medical district just during the past year. While the teen had suffered from nutritional and emotional difficulties, authorities intervened early enough so that she was spared the fate of another UK teen, Natasha Farnham, who was diagnosed with alcohol-related liver failure at 14. “Any child requiring hospital treatment for alcohol-related illness is a cause for great concern,” fretted Chris Sore of Drinkaware, an anti-alcohol advocate. But the problems in Great Britain pale in comparison to the problems down under, where many kids get their first taste of alcohol long before they reach puberty.  Last Sunday, officials in New Zealand announced that the number of youngsters treated for alcohol problems had increased by 20% in the Auckland area alone. Of the hundreds of children hospitalized for alcohol related problems, ten were under the age of five.

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