Drugs and Alcohol

Alcohol: the first time

Alcohol plays a big role in much of British culture and most young people grow up in households where their parents drink alcohol and there is a supply of alcohol in the house.
Why do young people drink alcohol?
Young people told us that they drank because they wanted to join in with their friends and have fun. They aimed to drink as fast, and as much, as they could. Some felt more curious about alcohol than illegal drugs and wanted to try any type of alcoholic drink.
When do young people start drinking alcohol?
Among the young people we talked to, the ’normal’ age to start drinking with friends was between 14 and 16. Of the people we talked to, those who had not started drinking alcohol until they were 16 or 17 described themselves as ‘late starters’. At the other end of the scale, Mary Ann‘s father had bought her an alcopop when she was just 10 years old.
Young people told us about their parents’ different attitudes to alcohol. Hayley was allowed small sips of her mother’s drinks when she was a child and Stefanie was allowed a drink at home on special occasions. Alex’s father offered him a beer when he was about 14 or 15 years old. Jen came from a strict Christian family, where alcohol was frowned upon. She was one of the ‘late starters’ who had her first taste of vodka at a party when she was 16 or 17. Kim had her first vodka at a party when she was 13 or 14 years old. She never drank with her parents.
How do underage young people buy alcohol?
The first experience of getting drunk was often quite carefully planned. Getting hold of alcohol is not straight forward for young people who are under age (under 18 in the UK) . The ‘Challenge 21’ and ‘Challenge 25’ initiatives that require shop and bar keepers to ask for proof of age for anyone who they think looks less than 21 (or 25) make it difficult for young people to buy alcohol themselves. Some young people persuaded older brothers and sisters to buy alcohol for them and one young man had used his older brother’s travel card as a fake ID. Peter and his friends would hang around outside the shop and ask strangers to buy alcohol for them – eventually someone would always agree (although it’s illegal to buy alcohol for someone underage).
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Stephanie commented that they did not have much money to buy alcohol so a couple of alcopops was all she and her 15 year old friends could afford. Other young people told us that they had tricked parents into giving them extra money. One girl’s parents were separated and didn’t talk to each other, so she asked them both for money for a school trip and used the spare money to buy alcohol. Because vodka looks like water, people told us it’s easy to dilute and steal from parents’ drinks cabinets. Others told us they took their parents’ beer from the fridge.
What do young people tell their parents?
When planning a drinking session with friends, young people told us that part of the process may involve lying to their parents. Girls would tell their parents they were staying at a friend’s house. Peter, at 15 years old, went to a friend’s house during the day to get drunk so that he would be sober by the time his parents collected him to go home. At 15 or 16 years old Stefanie told her mum that she had a drama class so that she could go to the pub with her friends.
Where do young people go to drink alcohol?
Some teenagers were particular about when and where they would drink. Parents and several of the young people themselves didn’t like the idea of them getting drunk in parks or city centres. Emily and Hayley said that, when they were in their mid- teens, their parents preferred them to invite their friends round to their houses, where they were safe, to have a drink.
What does alcohol taste like?
Alcoholic drinks don’t always taste good on the first try. Young people often struggle to ‘acquire’ the taste for beer, for example, but there was often pressure to drink it anyway, especially for young men A few years later, in their 20s, young men and women often felt more confident to drink whatever they wanted, or to choose not to drink at all.
Getting sick from alcohol
Despite the practical planning that went into some young people’s first experiences of drinking, few had any idea as to the effects or how much to drink. As a result it was common for many of the young people to get ill after drinking too much, too quickly. Emma said that she drank vodka (taken from the drinks cupboard at home) fast, to get drunk. Joe drank far too much whisky to feel confident enough to flirt with a girl. He ended up being sick on the lawn and huddling under a duvet in the corner of his friend’s bedroom for much of the next day. His friend’s father still calls him ‘Whisky Joe’ in memory of this occasion.
Many young people see drinking alcohol as something normal and enjoyable to do with their friends but some were aware of the damage that alcohol can cause. Chloe’s father was an alcoholic who died from an alcohol-related disease (cirrhosis of the liver) when she was 12. Mary Ann was also brought up in a family who drank heavily.
See also Alcohol and social life.

Last reviewed: July 2018.
Last updated: January 2015.


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