ALCOHOL sales should be restricted to over-21s, according to a new report that reveals that the drug is killing tens of thousands of teenagers and young adults in the developed world.
One in four deaths of people aged 15 to 29 in the developed world is down to drink - a total of 82,000 fatalities a year.
Males accounted for 70,000 of those deaths, meaning alcohol is responsible for a third of deaths among young men in the developing world, the Adolescent Health Study, published by the Lancet, revealed.The figure is made up of mainly accidents when the victims are inebriated, such as swimmers drowning and drink-driving deaths.
At the launch of the study in London yesterday, doctors called for the legal age for buying alcohol to be raised to 21.
Dr Russell Viner, a paediatrician at University College London, said Britain had only just woken up to the alcohol problem, which was most prevalent in northern Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
He said: "We are recognising that binge drinking in young people is a serious problem. We thought it was a lot of fun, but we now realise that, particularly amongst young people, not drinking much all week and splurging at the weekend is harmful."
He said the solution was to raise the legal limit for buying alcohol to that in the United States, where the number of young people drinking has been falling for 20 years.
He went on: "I would like to see a European model where most young people drink with their family at a younger age, learning to drink in a social context. But it would be difficult to bolt this on to established Anglo-Saxon practice, so the best is probably what Americans do. We need a rethink of ages we license young people to buy various products."
The report, a collection of several studies from around the world, claims brain development continues through adolescence and can be placed at risk by the use of alcohol.
It claims that zero-tolerance approaches to alcohol are ineffective, and that harm-reduction strategies, such as random breath-testing and early intervention from GPs advising youngsters on the risks of alcohol consumption, can be more effective.
The study says that, partly as a result of alcohol misuse, there is a danger of a substantial drop in life expectancy, with chronic diseases, such as diabetes and early signs of cardiovascular disease, appearing in teenagers and young adults.
Professor Glenn Bowes, the head of the paediatric department at the University of Melbourne in Australia, said alcohol misuse was likely to cause further problems later in life.
Citing the statistic that 98 per cent of adult drinkers began drinking in their adolescence, he said: "Adults who have alcohol-related health issues often exhibit behaviour patterns that began in their teenage years.
"Preventive work needs to be done at the stage where the behaviour starts," he added.
"The education in school is important, but we really have to look at what the health system is doing. Doctors need to be shown how to talk to adolescents, so that when they come in to a GP's surgery with a cold, for example, the doctor can use it as an opportunity to ask them about their lifestyle and advise them on the health risks."