Keep an eye on the booze

Observations on under-age drinking

Once used as a way of tracing stolen bicycles, coding is now being used to combat under-age drinking in Scotland. As part of a pilot scheme launched on 29 January, alcopops, fizzy wine and other drinks popular with teenagers are being branded with a number specific to their place of sale.

Police in Ayrshire plan to use the codes to trace shopkeepers and adults supplying drink to under-18s. If the scheme is successful, the Scottish Executive will consider rolling out the voluntary initiative as a national programme.

"The aim is both to prosecute offenders and gather information about places where children are getting their alcohol," says a spokesperson for Strathclyde Police. "Practically all the vendors are supportive. The scheme is backed by the licensing authority and they do not want any trouble."

With England, Scotland has one of the highest rates of under-age drinking in the world. A World Health Organisation survey last year reported that 43 per cent of Scottish 15-year-olds drink alcohol every week. (In France, the figure is 23 per cent and even in Norway and Sweden, countries associated with a high consumption of alcohol, it is 20 per cent.

In addition to health concerns, drinking is linked to antisocial behaviour. Strathclyde Police estimate that almost half of all calls concern youth disorder, usually after drinking sessions.

The public overwhelmingly supports coding. Binge drinking in adolescence crosses all classes; the difference, according to shopkeepers, lies in the type of alcohol purchased (cider in poorer areas and spirits in affluent ones).

The coding scheme, signed up to by 100 shops, is predominantly aimed at independent retailers. Proof of age procedures - often raised to include up to 21-year-olds - have tightened in supermarkets, but a recent study found that most alcohol purchased by teenagers comes from small corner shops.

Vendors breaking the law face a fine of up to £1,000 and, in cases of repeat offending, the loss of their licence.

Mary Beattie, who manages five small shops, signed up to the scheme and is "100 per cent supportive" of it, but fears that the real problem is not the children. It is, she says, adults who are supplying under-age drinkers.

And, while the code identifies the shop, it will not give police information that indicates the buyer. According to Beattie: "Some kids hang out and target passing strangers, but in my experience the main suppliers are parents."

According to Beattie, parents do not think it is bad if their 16- or 17-year-old wants a drink. "They are not happy if they are refused; they think it is up to them to decide if their child has a drink or not. I'm sure many do not even realise it is against the law."

Paradoxically, as researchers are pointing to drinking in a family setting as one of the keys to a more sensible attitude to alcohol use among young people in the Mediterranean, parental approval of excessive drinking may be one of the causes that Scotland, and England, need to address.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni v Shia