POLICE issued a stark warning about the North-East's underage drinking epidemic last night after a nine-year-old girl needed hospital treatment for consuming vodka.
The youngster's parents called paramedics after finding their daughter "in a dazed state" after apparently drinking the spirit with two friends who were around the same age.
Medics immediately called police who have spoken to the family, following the incident in Leadgate, near Consett, County Durham, last month (Feb).
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And officers revealed last night that the shocking incident is not unusual.
They say peer pressure is forcing young children to turn to alcohol in ever growing numbers.
In January, new figures revealed that the North-East has the country's highest percentage of 11 to 15 year-olds drinking alcohol.
The region also has double the national average of under-18s in treatment for drink-related problems.
Sergeant David Clarke, of Durham Constabulary, which is working to curb underage drinking in communities across County Durham, said: “Underage drinking is a severe problem with younger children drinking through peer pressure. It is a growing concern.”
Police in nearby Stanley are investigating an incident in which a 12-year-old was hospitalised for three consecutive weekends for alcohol-related injuries.
Earlier this month, a bottle of expensive gin, two bottles of schnapps, two bottles of sparkling wine and eight cans of cider were seized from four 14-year-old girls in Stanley.
Last year, police in County Durham and Darlington carried out a number of high profile operations targeting children. In Bishop Auckland, more than 30 underage drinkers were caught in one weekend, and in Darlington a large amount of alcohol was confiscated from school-leavers.
Similar operations have been launched in Cleveland.
As well as the harm to their health, police said young people are also risking their safety by taking part in pranks and making themselves vulnerable to sexual predators who exploit intoxicated teenagers.
Sgt Clarke said: “There is a very strong link between alcohol and sexual predators. It could just be people who find them in such a state or people who supply them with alcohol in return for sexual favours. It is used as a commodity.
“They are effectively being raped. Young girls are getting themselves filmed having sex with older guys. If they are drunk, they have no control. Then they are plastered all over the social media sites.”
It is illegal to take indecent pictures of anyone under the age of 18.
Sgt Clarke added: “There is one reason that older people are buying children alcohol and that is to take advantage of them.
“People who are buying alcohol for children should know that we will prosecute them and we will publicise their arrest.”
While boys are less likely to be the victims of sexual exploitation, police have warned they are more likely to be the victims of assault or injure themselves during drunken horseplay.
Sgt Clarke said: “Ten years ago you did not carry a video camera around but now everyone has one on their mobile phone.
“After a couple of drinks they want to film themselves, the stupider the better. They are putting themselves at risk.”
Police officers are working with PCSOs and Durham County Council’s Neighbourhood Wardens, which can also confiscate alcohol from underage drinkers, to patrol County Durham communities at weekends.
Colin Shevills, director of Balance, the North-East Alcohol Office, said drinking at an early age can lead to a range of health problems, short and long term.
He said: “It endangers the safety of children and young people, making them more vulnerable and increasing the likelihood of them becoming victims of crime, having unprotected sex, saying ‘yes’ to drugs and damaging their education and potentially their future.
“Here in the North-East we have the highest rate of under 18 alcohol specific hospital admissions and the highest rate of under 18s in alcohol treatment.
“Clearly pocket money prices, widespread availability and heavy marketing have established drinking as a social norm and it is having a harmful effect.”