Professor Sir Ian Gilmore said ”one in ten” children aged 11 have drunk alcohol in the last week
Nearly 300 children aged 11 or under were admitted to A&E units across the UK last year after drinking too much, a BBC Radio 5 live investigation shows.
Revealing UK-wide data for the first time, it said a total of 6,500 under-18s were admitted in 2012-13.
Charities and public health bodies say fewer children are drinking overall, but those who do may be drinking more.
The five years of data comes from Freedom of Information requests to 125 of the 189 UK NHS organisations.
Prof Ian Gilmore, chairman of the UK Alcohol Health Alliance, told the BBC: “I think in under-11s, it’s mainly experimenting, but I think we see children in the 11 to 16-year-old range who are beginning to drink regularly.”
He added: “There are some encouraging signs in that the numbers of under-18s drinking is probably falling, but those that are drinking are probably drinking earlier and drinking more heavily, so we certainly can’t be complacent.”
Over the last five years A&E departments across the UK have dealt with nearly 48,000 incidents where under-18s have been admitted for drink or drug related illnesses.
During 2012/13 there were 293 cases of children aged 11 or under attending A&E with alcohol-related conditions – a third more than in 2011/12 when there were 216 cases.
Among teens, more girls than boys are now being admitted, a reversal of the past trend.
Ayrshire and Arran Health Board dealt with the highest number of cases last year – with 483 alcohol-related attendances.
Morten Draegebo, an A&E consultant at Crosshouse Hospital in Kilmarnock, said children were exposing themselves to significant danger.
He said: “The typical patient may be found in a field. They often need to hide away from any sort of adults in the area so they’re picked up by the ambulance service.
“They have difficulty locating where they are because the description comes through from a distressed half-drunk teenager potentially saying that they’re under a tree somewhere in a large park.
“Eventually they’re found but even in summer-time in Scotland they’re vaguely hypothermic.
“They have vomited. The vomit may go down the wrong way into the lungs. They are unable to defend themselves even from assault.”
Dr Draegebo added: “We have had many cases where teenage, young teenage females have come in saying that they may have been sexually assaulted and they’re that intoxicated and are distressed and say, ‘I may have been’, but they don’t even know if they have been or not.
“On a humane level that is very distressing. I’m a parent, I would hate for that to happen to my daughter.”
‘Can’t take it’
Elaine Hindal, chief executive of Drinkaware, said the incidence of drunkenness among under-11s was “really alarming” and parents must be vigilant.
“It’s really unlikely that children are buying alcohol. When children talk to us in our research, they tell us they get alcohol from home, primarily from their parents and from friends,” she said.
“But parents need to simply be aware of the dangers of drinking, particularly with younger children. Their bodies can’t take it, they’re more at risk of alcoholic poisoning, they are more likely to be a victim of alcohol-related violence.”
Across the UK, experts agree that fewer children are drinking now than several years ago, but say the amount being consumed by those underage has stayed the same – suggesting those who do drink are consuming more.
Public Health England says one in four underage drinkers consumes more than 15 units a week – the equivalent of seven pints of lager.
The official advice from the chief medical officers across the UK is that no children should be given alcohol until they are 16, and alcohol should only be given to older teenagers under supervision of a carer or parent, and never on more than one day a week.
A Department of Health England spokesman said: “We know that fewer young people are drinking and being admitted to hospital as a result.
“But with more than one million alcohol-related hospital admissions overall in the last year we know too many people are drinking too much and that alcohol places a heavy burden on the NHS, costing around £3.5bn every year. “