Hundreds of Northern Ireland children hospitalised due to alcohol
Underage drinkers have been hospitalised 655 times in the past five years in Northern Ireland, new figures have revealed.
According to research by investigative website The Detail, that doesn't include many more turning up at casualty wards for emergency treatment.
Despite this level of alcohol abuse among young people, the number of PSNI seizures from underage drinkers more than halved from 723 to 320 in the 10 months following the establishment of 11 new police districts in 2015.
Meanwhile, research by Addiction NI suggested that alcohol misuse costs Northern Ireland's economy almost £1bn a year.
Drinking too much caused lost productivity, premature death and unemployment, the charity said.
Among The Detail's findings were the revelations that:
- A total of 519 under 18s were receiving treatment for alcohol problems in 2014;
- The PSNI seized alcohol from under 18s on 1,161 occasions in the past two years. Some of the children were aged just 12;
- There have been 153 prosecutions and just 57 convictions relating to minors at licensed premises in the past five years;
- The number of off-licences, including those at supermarkets, has increased by nearly 60% since 1999.
Before the Stormont Assembly election, earlier this month, the then-Health Minister Michelle O'Neill said she planned to put proposals for the minimum pricing of alcohol out to public consultation "as soon as possible".
But with the Assembly in limbo, the plans are unlikely to move forward soon.
Campaigners are also calling for compulsory support services at major events, greater transparency in relation to the publication of licensing information and the allocation of more police resources towards tackling the problem.
One charity is working with hundreds of children - some as young as 13 - struggling with alcohol problems.
Joe Hyland, the chief executive of SOS NI, the staff of which is often the first to encounter drunken children told The Detail: "At a recent event we had three youngsters, one aged 13, who drank a 10-glass bottle of vodka and their life was seriously under threat.
"This happens because as they come in to Belfast someone says drink up because all your drink is going to be confiscated and naively, because of their age, that is what they do."
Putting the figures for alcohol related admissions in context, the Department of Health said: "It is unlikely that alcohol would be recorded as the main reason for admission; the code for alcohol would be recorded as a secondary diagnosis due to the fact that it is a contributing factor to the primary admission."
Addiction NI director Thelma Abernethy said alcohol was having a significant impact on mental health here, saying: "Here in Northern Ireland, it is estimated that in the region of 3.64 million working hours are lost every year due to alcohol use alone.
"This coupled with the ever-increasing use of legal and illegal drugs in the workplace will have an even bigger impact on individuals, families and business.
"It is important that businesses understand the impact of alcohol and drug use within the workplace as well as their legal responsibilities to ensure the overall health, well-being and safety of their workforce."
The £900m cost includes the bills to the Health Service as well as social work, courts, prisons, fire and rescue and police services, Addiction NI said.