New research shows that the more off-license stores a town boasts of, the greater the number of under-age drinkers who are likely to end up in hospital as a result of harmful drinking.
The study was commissioned by the lobby group Alcohol Concern. It found that for every two off-licenses per 100,000 population, one under-18 year-old was admitted to hospital for alcohol poisoning or intoxication between 2006 and 2009. The numbers could be higher, say researchers from the University of the West of England, because the cause of a teenage drinker's hospital admission is not always clear. The research also excludes young people who are admitted as a result of an injury – whether a fight, a fall or a car accident – which is drink-related.
Alcohol Concern argues that off-licenses have proliferated too widely and rapidly as people have taken to drinking cheaply at home rather in the pub, where prices are higher and consumption tends to be lower. Teenagers under the age of 18 often resort to “shoulder tapping” – asking friends, relatives or even strangers to buy it from them at an off-license.
“It is a sobering thought that the numbers of off-licenses in any one area has an impact on under-18s drinking and ending up in hospital,” said Don Shenker, chief executive of Alcohol Concern. “It is a failing of the current system that so many licenses are being granted without due consideration to young people's health.”
Alcohol-related hospital admissions of under-18s rose by 32% between 2002 and 2007. Of the 19,367 young people admitted to hospital through drink between 2006 and 2009, more than 1,900 could be directly attributable to the concentration of off-licenses in the area.
The relationship between the density of off-licences and under-18 alcohol-related hospital admissions across England excluding London, where there was no statistical link. “This anomaly is likely to be because young people in London consistently consume less alcohol than the average in England and with a lower frequency,” writes Dr Nikki Coghill, senior research fellow at the University of West of England, author of the report. It is suggested this could be a result of the particular ethnic mix.
This study draws on data for about 73% of England – the 214 out of 293 areas where the licensing and health authority boundaries match. But, says Dr Coghill, “this is a figure sufficiently robust to draw strong conclusions.” It assumes a consistent average of young people per 100,000 population across England and is not adjusted for areas where there may be fewer or more.
The average off-licence density in England is almost 63 per 100,000 population, which drops to a low of nearly 27 in the Malvern Hills and reaches a high of more than 135 in Salford. In the two years between 2006-7 and 2008-9, Malvern Hills had 82 alcohol-specific admissions among under-18s, while Salford had 117. The average for England was 79.
Shenker is calling for local authorities to have more powers to block off-licenses from setting up. “Local licensing committees are currently operating with one arm tied behind their backs. Current licensing legislation does not give licensing committees enough power to restrict the high density of licensed premises,” he said. “A new health objective should be included in the Licensing Act to enable local authorities to refuse new licenses in order to reduce alcohol-related harm and protect young people. We also need more research to understand the relationship between off-license density and alcohol harms, and better collection of alcohol harm data to feed into licensing decision-making.”
Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK and special advisor on alcohol to the Royal College of Physicians, said, “This research further underlines the need for a comprehensive alcohol strategy from the government, which tackles the affordability, promotion and the availability of alcohol.”