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Call to avoid alcohol until age of 24

A leading scientist has called for young people to avoid alcohol until they are 24 years of age due to the fact it hinders brain development.

According to Dr Aric Sigman, a biologist and fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, “modest teenage binge drinking” can lead to poorer performance when their intellect is challenged in later life.

In the new book Alcohol Nation: How to protect our children from today’s drinking culture, Sigman also criticises the apparent admiration among parents for the continental-style attitude towards teenage alcohol consumption, saying: “Sycophantic adoration by the British middle classes for the way in which the French drink has not worked in our children’s favour”.

Under current laws, parents can legally allow five-year-olds to drink alcohol at home, while underage teenagers can sit in pubs with their friends, though people must be 18 to legally buy alcohol.

Sigman said this approach left “too much room for confusion and manoeuvre”.

Ideally, young people should not consume any alcohol until they reach 24-and-a-half, when a child’s brain has fully developed, he said.

“One of the greatest hindrances to addressing underage alcohol use has been the inability of British adults to reconcile their beliefs, expectations, experience and sheer love of alcohol with an entirely new understanding of its specific effects on upon children and young people,” he said.

“The effects and long-term consequences of drinking even so-called moderate amounts of alcohol are entirely different matters for the young brain, body and genes, with ramifications reverberating for decades beyond a child’s first sip.”

He went on to launch a sustained attack on middle-class parents who allow children to drink a small amount of alcohol to get them used to it at a young age.

He said it was a “myth” that introducing children to alcohol early prevents heavy drinking and alcoholism later on.

“Even if it was legal we wouldn’t recommend early ‘sensible snorting’ to prevent later cocaine addiction and abuse, or ‘sensible dope smoking’ to prevent later cannabis abuse or early cigarette smoking to prevent later nicotine addiction,” he said. “Yet when it comes to our logic regarding introducing children to alcohol, we seem to be thinking under the influence.

"Early exposure to alcohol may ‘prime’ the brain to enjoy alcohol by creating a link between it and pleasurable reward: we may inadvertently be switching on genes that affect a susceptibility to alcohol addiction.

"Yet a sycophantic adoration by the British middle classes for the way in which the French drink has not worked in our children’s favour.

“Although parents may delude themselves into believing that they are giving their children a more responsible cosmopolitan and sophisticated approach to alcohol by ‘Doing The Continental’, the French actually have a serious alcohol problem and France’s death rate from cirrhosis of the liver is actually twice that of the UK’s. Drink like the French, die like the French.”

Alan Lodge, 08.06.2011

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