Almost 500 children have been taken to hospital in the Bay after consuming drugs and alcohol in the past five years.
Figures supplied to the Bay of Plenty Times under the Official Information Act by the Bay of Plenty District Health Board show from the start of 2011 to March 2016, 488 children aged 19 and under were taken to hospital for consuming drugs and alcohol. One hundred and seventy-six of these presentations were for alcohol, the highest number in a given category, although 294 were listed under "drug not otherwise specified".
Health board chief executive Helen Mason said medically, alcohol was the substance being used by children causing the greatest concern to health board staff.
"[Alcohol] is what more often leads to injury and presentations to the emergency department due to excess use. Cannabis is the substance of choice for most young people referred to Sorted, however it is very rare for a young person to present to the emergency department as a result of cannabis-related symptoms."
Te Tuinga Whanau Support Services Trust social services director Tommy Wilson said even one child being taken to the hospital because of alcohol or drug use was too many.
He said schools needed to work closely with the Ministry of Health around educating young people of the effects of drugs and alcohol.
"The days of just saying no to drugs and alcohol are long gone.
"We need to educate the next generation about what drugs are, and that alcohol is a drug. Until we can address it as such, it still has lethal consequences."
Mr Wilson was also concerned about the prevalence of synthetic drugs.
"It's not just the elephant in the room, it's the whale in the whare. Synthetic, chemical-based drugs made in this country that have no chance of being tested are the real danger.
"Shutting down tinnie houses is just a bandaid."
Drinking and drug use was becoming "normalised and glamourised" at a young age and was a learned behaviour, Mr Wilson said.
"It's not something you come upon by chance. They mirror the actions of the parents."
Professor Doug Sellman, director of the National Addiction Centre at the University of Otago, said the numbers were a sign of New Zealand's heavy drinking culture.
Professor Sellman said the immediate risk to children exposure to alcohol early in life was mainly related to the acute effects of alcohol.
"Just as in adolescents and adults, alcohol intoxication increases the risk of injury and, if large quantities are consumed, overdose and potential death."
He said the risk of addiction from early exposure was more complex as a person needed to engage in frequent heavy drinking for an addiction to be initiated.
"The families of such children can often be dealing with alcohol too casually, so that children grow up thinking it is normal to drink frequently and heavily."
He said frequent heavy drinking in adolescents could lead to damage to parts of the brain such as the hippocampus, which was associated with laying down new memories, and probably to other areas of the brain as well.
The figures also showed 77 children under 5 were taken to hospital and 10 of them were less than a year old.
Mrs Mason said in most instances, the data for children under 9 was related to accidental poisoning from alcohol, medications or other substances.
Health Promotion Agency acting general manager of policy, research and advice Cath Edmondson said the agency was concerned about children under 9 years old being hospitalised for alcohol use. "Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of alcohol and parents and caregivers should ensure that alcohol is locked away and inaccessible to children. There is a large and growing body of evidence, highlighting the detrimental impact that alcohol use, particularly heavy drinking, can have on the structure and functionality of the developing brain."
Ms Edmondson said the agency's advice to parents of children and young people under 18 years was that "not drinking alcohol is the safest option".