CHILDREN as young as 11 are turning to a North-East drugs helpline for advice in record numbers.

The figures are revealed today as the Government launches its pre-New Year campaign to encourage youngsters to call the National Drug Helpline to find reliable information before they find out by personal experience.

The estimated number of calls from the Yorkshire and Northern region to the helpline in 2001 is 33,000.

This is about average for the regional breakdown of the national 275,000 total.

However, 48 per cent of these calls have been received from youngsters aged 11 to 19, the highest proportion in the country.

Earlier this year, a survey showed more than half of North-East children had tried drugs by the time they reach the age of 14, following drug-related deaths in Peterlee and Bishop Auckland, County Durham.

Fiona Young, manager of the North-East Drugs Prevention Advisory Service (DPAS), said: "We know that there is a significant proportion of young people in that age group who are experimenting. Not all of them have problems, but they are experimenting."

She said the aim of the helpline was to make sure people can get access to the information they need, so they are more aware of the dangers and are more prepared if they still choose to experiment.

"We want to make sure people can access help and information when they need it."

But she insisted: "The majority of young people still does not experiment with illegal drugs.

"The illegal drug that most people still experiment with is cannabis, but there is a small proportion - about one per cent - who experience heroin and cocaine."

Home Office Drugs Minister Bob Ainsworth said: "Drug related deaths make the headlines, but what many young people do not know about are the less dramatic side-effects of taking class A drugs.

"These can include long-term medical problems such as panic attacks, paranoia, depression, sleeplessness and heart problems."

The Government's £1.5m campaign will concentrate on radio and magazine advertising, with posters also going up in nightclubs and colleges. Parents, key professionals and community groups are also being targeted.

The helpline is a free service on 0800 776600.