Alex Steer

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Why optional zero tolerance doesn't work

479 words | ~2 min

The UK's Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, is advising that children under 15 should not ever be given alcohol by their parents. He is quoted:

It is advice to parents. It's their choice at the end of the day within the family setting.

This has, rightly, elicited a lot of supportive comments from alcohol addiction groups and public health professionals, such as this one from Alcohol Concern:

Parents have for too long received mixed messages about whether they should give their children a little bit of alcohol or not.

The BBC article also contains the shock stat that '20% of 13-year-olds [drink] alcohol at least once a week' (though this is from one survey, and I don't know the source so can't comment on its accuracy).

So, the issue of children drinking is a confusing and misunderstood one, and it's tempting to see this new guidance from Sir Liam as a great clarification, cutting through the undergrowth with a sharp message of parental abstinence.

The problem is, it only offers clarification for people who choose to obey it, and it doesn't offer clear reasons for obeying it. I doubt that many people, if you asked them, could reel off the figures for the incidence of death or serious illness caused by alcohol in the under-15 population, or what percentage of the same in adults, or of alcoholism, can be attributed to childhood drinking. (I don't know, for the record.)

Telling people 'all drink is bad for kids', without much to support that, will provoke a 'no it isn't' response, as people recall their own days of mild underage experimentation with alcohol, and note that they are not dead as a result of it. This is pretty bad sample-of-one analysis, but it's what you get if you don't tell people to think about risk. The message needs to be: if you give your child more than x amount of alcohol per week, there is an x per cent chance that it will cause them serious harm.

So lots of parents will ignore this, perhaps because they want to introduce their children to alcohol in the relatively safety of their own home, rather than have them caning it on Buckfast down the local youth club. And when they do, they still won't know how much will push their children into the area of serious risk.

All of which, of course, is forgetting that if the '20% of 13 year-olds' stat is even close to true, they'll all be round the back of the bus shelters with the supermarket vodka anyway, trying to figure out the risk-to-reward relationship without the assistance of the Department of Health.

# Alex Steer (29/01/2009)