Children as young as 11 are among a growing number of young people in Tauranga seeking help for problems with alcohol.
In less than a year since Sorted, a youth alcohol and drugs service was established by the Bay of Plenty District Health Board, it has assisted nearly 200 young people with substance abuse issues.
Sorted is a local service that provides support to those under 18 who have alcohol and drug issues. They provide information, education and counselling.
Social worker David Gilmour said children as young as 11 had alcohol problems.
"We are getting teenagers with severe alcohol problems.
"It's not unusual for us to be seeing or hearing of 10 to 11-year-olds simply because they raided Dad's beer fridge. But other times they will raid the alcohol and go to a park and sit behind a bush."
In July, a 15-year-old drank himself unconscious at a Brookfield park. He was taken to Tauranga Hospital, while another drunk teen was taken into police custody.
Mr Gilmour said young people used to drink beer at parties but were now drinking ready-to-drink (RTDs) beverages, also known as "alcopops", which were much higher in alcohol.
The arrival of RTDs was the big driver behind increasingly younger people having problems.
"They are marketed to kids. They make them so they taste like lemonade," Mr Gilmour said.
An analysis of three national alcohol surveys by Massey University researchers found that, significantly, RTD consumption showed the greatest increases in how much and how often youngsters drank.
Massey's Social and Health Outcomes Research and Evaluation (Shore) public health unit found that among 16 to 17-year-old drinkers, 28 per cent of girls against 25 per cent of boys drank at least eight standard drinks in a typical drinking sessions last year.
This figure was nearly double that recorded in a 2003 survey.
Shore director Professor Sally Casswell said the increase up to 2004 followed the arrival of RTDs in 1995 and the lowering of the drinking age from 20 to 18 in 1999.
Tony Farrell, a Mount Maunganui doctor who specialises in treating people with drug and alcohol problems, has seen patients as young as 13 binge drinking and patients with severe addictions 10 years on from the onset of their drinking "who tell me they started drinking alcohol at ages like 8 or 9".
Dr Farrell said alcohol was especially damaging for brain development "and the earlier you start, the more damage you will suffer".
Get Smart counsellor Krista Davis said the youngest client she had was 13, but drinking was far more common among 14-year-olds, who were typically binge drinking at weekends.
"Considering most of the RTDs they drink [the Codys, the Woodstocks] are more than one standard drink each, it isn't difficult for them," she said.
Get Smart manager Stuart Caldwell said that since RTDs were introduced and the drinking age was lowered "we have seen a youth binge drinking culture climbing way out of control".
RTDs were made from high alcohol spirits, like bourbon and vodka, but enough sugar was added that the 13 to 16-year-old drinkers did not know the difference. "The delicate developing teenage brain is definitely not designed to handle this invasion of alcohol."
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