Retailers could find themselves on the frontline of a campaign to dissuade parents from buying alcohol for their children. Phil Mellows reports

It never ends. You climb one hill and another rises up in front of you. If you’re lucky, it’s a slightly lower hill. The drastic reduction in recent years of children buying booze from a shop or off-licence has been remarkable, and retailers can give themselves a pat on the back for the part they’ve played – but there’s a bit more work to do, this time with the parents. 

In 2004 a survey revealed, shockingly, that 73% of under-16s, and even most 11 to 13-year-olds, had successfully purchased alcohol from a shop. Proof of age schemes and Challenge 25, introduced as Challenge 21 in 2006, made a dramatic impact. 

By 2015, eight in 10 off-trade premises were passing compliance tests and only 4% of under-18s said they would even attempt to buy drink from a supermarket. Over the same period, young people’s alcohol consumption has sharply declined. 

In 2018, just one in 10 school pupils aged 11 to 15 reported drinking in the past week, down from one in four in 2004. And 71% of those who are drinking have found a new source – their parents. It was this that led Community Alcohol Partnerships (CAP), the industry-backed organisation that’s been driving projects in areas where under-age drinking is still a problem, to find out more and produce a report titled An Alcohol-free Childhood. 

Its survey among parents of 11 to 17-year-olds finds most allow their children to drink, and 22% are happy for that to be unsupervised, while another study shows most adults are unaware of the Chief Medical Officer’s (CMO) guidance on children and alcohol. 

Only 13%, for instance, are aware of advice that children should not drink at all before they are 15. Now, CAP is recommending that the government and other bodies actively promote CMO guidance, and retailers could again find themselves in the frontline of the campaign. 

“Our success with Challenge 25 has made us the envy of our European colleagues,” declares CAP director Kate Winstanley. 

“Yet 10 children a day are still admitted to hospital with alcohol-related issues, and it’s really not safe when 70% of under-15s [who are drinking] are being given drink by their parents. It’s clear the CMO guidance hasn’t landed.” 

Retailers engaging with parents face-to-face have an opportunity to open a conversation on the subject, she believes, and could be armed with facts and materials to help get the message across. It’s likely the conversation on this occasion will be a nuanced one. 

We aren’t talking about hard laws here. Indeed, it wouldn’t be surprising if the complex legislation around under-age drinking is confusing people. For instance, while it’s illegal to buy alcohol for under-18s – known as proxy purchasing – that doesn’t apply to parents. 

In pubs and restaurants, 16 and 17-year-olds can drink beer, cider and wine as long as they’re supervised by a parent, and it’s legal for a child as young as five to consume alcohol in the home – though Winstanley finds that ridiculous. 

“A careful introduction to alcohol for 15 to 17-year-olds is probably fine,” she adds, something most parents would intuitively consider a sensible approach. 

But many parents are relying on their own youthful experiments with alcohol, and Winstanley insists the view that it’s “normal” for young teenagers to drink is “out of date”. 

“We now know it’s not healthy, and that’s what we have to get across to parents.”