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Drugs and Alcohol (young people)

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.
 

Emma wasn’t interested in drugs but when it came to drinking alcohol, she definitely wanted to 'join in the fun'.

Emma wasn’t interested in drugs but when it came to drinking alcohol, she definitely wanted to 'join in the fun'.

Age at interview: 19
Sex: Female
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Right well for me the main pressures haven’t really been concerning drugs, socially a couple of my friends have been smoking Weed but it’s not, it’s not a big part of my life, and I’ve never really felt the need to, to, you know, get involved with drugs. And, but when it comes to alcohol there’s definitely, definitely been some pressures and some, you know, experiences that I’ve had. And I guess it kind of started quite early on, probably when I was about fourteen or fifteen, I think that’s around the first time that I was a bit tipsy. and it’s at various people’s house parties, you know, either their parents go away or their parents are quite relaxed about alcohol and teenagers, and you just find yourself being really quite stupid [laughs] you find yourself drinking for the sake of getting as drunk as you can as quickly as you can. and there’s a massive panic because obviously you’re underage and so every, you know, there’s not that much alcohol so you’re consuming as much as you can as fast as you can, and you’re not really you’re what, you know, you’re not thinking about what it’s doing to you as a fourteen, fifteen year old you’re just having fun and joining in. And it’s you, you get, you get really silly with it you just, I mean I think when I was fifteen you find a bottle of Pimms and you think ‘this is great’ and you just drink it neat and it’s not fun [laughs]. But it’s okay it’s alcohol so you’re joining in I guess .
 
What do you mean joining in?
 
Well it’s a [noise] we got this word peer pressure I guess but it’s funny it’s not like everyone else is saying, “Go on drink, drink, why aren’t you joining in?.” It’s kind of like you want to join in, it’s fun, it’s something new, but you just, you’re not thinking really about what it’s doing to you as a fourteen year old you know? So I guess that’s really my first experiences of alcohol. And then you kind of grow up a bit, maybe [laughs], and you kind of perhaps are more, are starting to be more responsible with alcohol, you know?  
 

Stephanie saw alcohol as ‘exciting’. The first time she got drunk, she and her friends told some boys they’d just met that they had been drunk before.

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Stephanie saw alcohol as ‘exciting’. The first time she got drunk, she and her friends told some boys they’d just met that they had been drunk before.

Age at interview: 23
Sex: Female
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 Okay [laughs]. The first time, I can remember the first time I tried alcohol I think I was probably fourteen or fifteen properly tried alcohol less, well I wasn’t with my parents so it was on my own the first time I tried alcohol, so it was me and, my other best friend and we were with a group of boys that we’d just become friends with, and they had been drunk before, and they asked if we’d been drunk before and we pretended that we had been even though we hadn’t been, but we wanted to try it, it wasn’t, we didn’t feel pressured or anything. and we got a couple of alcopops and we were sitting there saying, “Oh I feel quite dizzy.” And the boys would be saying, “Well yeah you’re getting drunk.” And we’re like, “Oh yeah of course.” You know pretending that we knew what it felt like [laughs] but we, I remember just being, it was fun, it was, it was exciting and it was fun and it wasn’t, we didn’t feel pressured, we did what we wanted to do, , and I suppose because we only had one or two it didn’t really last very long , but I enjoyed it, and then after that we would want, obviously wanted to do it again, most Fridays after school, we’d only have not that much pocket money so we wouldn’t be able to buy that huge an amount, I think if we had more money it could have been a bit more dangerous, because we’d obviously would have, might maybe bought more expensive alcohol. , but we only ever bought, you know, a couple of drinks each and it was always good fun. And then maybe we would buy kind of big bottles of cider which then would obviously have a worse effect [laughs]. 
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.
 

Jen says that she was 16 or 17 when she first started drinking alcohol. She had conflicting...

Jen says that she was 16 or 17 when she first started drinking alcohol. She had conflicting...

Age at interview: 25
Sex: Female
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I was quite a late starter when it came to alcohol growing up in. I grew up in quite a Christian family. So alcohol wasn’t freely available or freely drunk. So it wasn’t until I was about. I was quite a late starter 16 or 17 and started going to kind of like house parties or in Shetland then we have, you know, people go to country halls and there’s a band playing and it’s all under-agers drinking basically. And usually we’d just, get a bottle of vodka and we kind of shared it around. I often felt a little bit uncomfortable because I’d had no real kind of...
 
Experience?
 

Yeah and alcohol was quite a kind of scary concept to me. I didn’t like the feeling of being drunk. I found it, I kind of was in a lot of conflict how I was feeling at that time with my family and all that sort of thing. So yes so I was quite a late starter  

 

Growing up, Stefanie was allowed to drink a small amount on special family occasions. She started drinking with friends at the age of 15 or 16 and describes herself as a 'sensible drinker'.

Growing up, Stefanie was allowed to drink a small amount on special family occasions. She started drinking with friends at the age of 15 or 16 and describes herself as a 'sensible drinker'.

Age at interview: 24
Sex: Female
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I was, it was never a big thing in my house that children shouldn’t drink. I mean, of course, I wasn’t given a bottle of vodka but you were always allowed a little stubby beer at Christmas or a glass of wine if you had been good on a special occasion like a wedding or my mum’s a massive football fan so if Chelsea were playing she would let me have a, [ha] a little, one of those little French, terrible French stubby beers.
 
I got into drinking when I was about 15/16. I think maybe even a bit younger. When by then I already thought I was grown up and an adult and I knew everything there was to know about the world. And I used to, because my mum was very strict about when I left the house so I used to do an amateur dramatics club once a week but I told her it was twice a week when I was 16. So that I could go to the pub with my friends. But we were always very sensible drinkers. We would do it socially and I didn’t binge too much back then.  
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).
 

Peter and his friend managed to get hold of alcohol despite being under-age.

Peter and his friend managed to get hold of alcohol despite being under-age.

Age at interview: 27
Sex: Male
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Ok Let me think. I mean I suppose my first ever experience of taking a drug that wasn’t for medicine will probably have been alcohol. I tasted it as a child. I’ve tasted, obviously I’ve tasted it as a child. It’s a big part of British culture. So yeah maybe a family party or something the first time I tasted it. I didn’t become intoxicated. I didn’t drink enough to be intoxicated but I tasted alcohol as a child.
 

I probably got drunk off alcohol, intoxicated at maybe around 12 or 13 with friends from school. Basically I think we stood outside a shop. We asked people walking past where they were going in, were they going. Eventually someone did. I think it was something like cider. We drunk about a litre or two each. I can’t remember. It was a long time ago. I was, I was very drunk. I can’t really remember that much of that day.  

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.
 

Jamie never saw the point of getting drunk in public places. He was 14 when he first tried alcohol and says he didn’t know how to handle it.

Jamie never saw the point of getting drunk in public places. He was 14 when he first tried alcohol and says he didn’t know how to handle it.

Age at interview: 26
Sex: Male
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It’s been explained to me. , so yeah and then with alcohol, as I said meal times and that with family, and then really I started growing up and I grew up in like [Place] which is just down the road, and my friends at the time, we were probably, you know, eleven, twelve, and they were all starting to drink these, you know, three litre bottles of Cider and everything saying, “Oh come on let’s go drink.” [Sighs] and I didn’t really feel that the context was right to go and drink down the park or somewhere like that, you know, to, it was pointless to me I didn’t understand the point of it, so I never participated and generally went home. And, and then when I was thirteen we just, my parents decided to move from the area...
 
So decided to relocate to a smaller village location. And then , it was there then really I was probably fourteen where I first started going to parties and then the context seemed a bit more kind of appropriate then to kind of maybe have a drink or two, and I remember the first time that I drank, I was drinking Cider at a house party and I was just, you know, a mess kind of thing, I drank, I don’t, I didn’t, I don’t know how many units but I probably drank like six cans of Cider or something like that at the age of fourteen, fifteen and I just, I couldn’t handle it, I was way too young and I’d not experienced it before and really didn’t know how to control the kind of quantities or, you know, didn’t know how much to do or how much not to, and just soon realised that I’d drunk too much and wasn’t very well [laughs].
 
Yeah so that was my first experience of alcohol. 
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.
 

Joe preferred the taste of alcopops but switched to beer under pressure from his male friends.

Joe preferred the taste of alcopops but switched to beer under pressure from his male friends.

Age at interview: 24
Sex: Male
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I suppose, I experimented with alcohol before any drugs when I was round about the age of fifteen, started going to kind of parties with friends around school. , and I had small amounts of alcohol to start with or kind of alcopops, like the, the fruity flavoured ones you know? and would maybe have, you know, four, four of those at a party, some of my friends would, I mean the boys would bring beers and the girls would drink the alcopops but I didn’t like the taste of beer at that age so I, I drank alcopops which then progressed on to beers, mainly out of peer pressure and that the boys were saying, “Oh, you know boys drink beer.” So [sighs] moved on to beers and, yeah then, maybe after a year or so of, of trying that , probably when yeah when I was about sixteen started on spirits, so I tried vodka, and whisky, and yeah stronger, stronger alcohol. had a, had a fairly bad experience at the age of sixteen where I’d drank too much whisky and was, was ill from that, which put me off getting drunk for quite a while but it didn’t stop me from drinking at parties. 
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.
 

Lauren felt very ill after drinking two litres of cider but she knew she would do it again because, as she put it, she was young, naïve and experimenting.

Lauren felt very ill after drinking two litres of cider but she knew she would do it again because, as she put it, she was young, naïve and experimenting.

Age at interview: 18
Sex: Female
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I first drank alcohol when I was I think 14 under the influence of my friends. And the first time I was sick, I threw up because it was cider and it wasn’t very good. But nothing happened I was just ill. And then...
 
How much did you drink?
 
About two litres.
 
Where were you at that time?
 
At my friend’s house.
 
How many of you were there?
 
About six.
 
And all of you were drinking cider? Ok. How many of you got sick?
 
About three of us.
 
How long did it take you to get better?
 
A day.
 
A day. So what did you have headaches or stomach?
 
Headache and stomach ache.
 
What did you think about that afterwards?
 
I thought it was a stupid idea but I knew I’d do it again because I’m young.
 
So why were you so sure you were going to do it again?
 
Because that’s what you do when you are young. You experiment with different things and you’re naïve, you’re probably going to do it again. And now I’m 18 so I’m legal to drink.
 
Did you do it again?
 
Yeah, not straight after but I did. 
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.
 

Mary Ann's dad bought her alcopops when she was 10. Alcohol has been a major part of Mary Ann’s life since she was 13 and has caused her a lot of problems. (Played by an actress)

Mary Ann's dad bought her alcopops when she was 10. Alcohol has been a major part of Mary Ann’s life since she was 13 and has caused her a lot of problems. (Played by an actress)

Age at interview: 20
Sex: Female
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Alcohol I think I’ve kind of always been around alcohol, I’ve kind of been brought up with it because my Dad’s a very big drinker, he’s still is to this day, always has been, I think he always will but I don’t think he’ll ever change he’s fifty, so, and he’s been a big drinker since he has been young, since he’s been old enough to drink, so but that’s caused him a lot of problems, well how, how I look at him, like he runs his own business but he’ll go on, big sessions, about two or three times a week and how the hell he runs his own business I have no idea, it worries me sick because he has Crohn’s Disease and he only has half a stomach, so he doesn’t eat a lot, so he can’t eat a lot either, so when he goes out and he’s drinking for like ten, twelve hours, and he’s drinking all this, and he takes him about two, three days to recover, and he literally just can’t move out of bed, so and he’s trying to run a business while doing this as well. So that’s always worried me and obviously growing up I used to go the pub with him and I just used to have alcohol, like around me, and I’d, just he would buy me alcohol as well which obviously some people would just think, oh I do personally think it’s bad because I would never do it with my son, but I think the first time my Dad brought me drink, and this is no word of a lie, I was about ten and he brought me, I always remember them, little bottles of they were called Reefer, and they was only like alcopops and I always remember that, yeah I was about ten, and that’s kind of like, and then from then on, I think, from the age of thirteen when I went to upper school I started smoking a little bit more Skunk, but I didn’t really like it so I just never smoked it. And then, but from the age of thirteen alcohol has been a major part of my life, like [xxxxx] and I think that’s what’s caused a lot of my problems. 

See also Alcohol and social life.

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