The law on alcohol and under 18s
There are a number of laws around alcohol and under 18s so as a parent it's best to have an understanding of them. Some of them could also land you in trouble if you unknowingly break them.
What does the law say?
Alcohol consumption in the UK is governed by strict laws.
It is against the law (1) (2):
- To sell alcohol to someone under 18 anywhere.
- For an adult to buy or attempt to buy alcohol on behalf of someone under 18. (retailers can reserve the right to refuse the sale of alcohol to an adult if they’re accompanied by a child and think the alcohol is being bought for the child.)
- For someone under 18 to buy alcohol, attempt to buy alcohol or to be sold alcohol.
- For someone under 18 to drink alcohol in licensed premises, except where the child is 16 or 17 years old and accompanied by an adult. In this case it is legal for them to drink, but not buy, beer, wine and cider with a table meal.
- For an adult to buy alcohol for someone under 18 for consumption on licensed premises, except as above.
- To give children alcohol if they are under five.
It is not illegal:
- For someone over 18 to buy a child over 16 beer, wine or cider if they are eating a table meal together in licensed premises.
- For a child aged five to 16 to drink alcohol at home or on other private premises.
For more information visit our page on buying alcohol.
Consequences of breaking the law
- If the police suspect someone under 18 has alcohol in a public place, they have the power to confiscate it. If young people get caught with alcohol three times they could face a social contract, a fine or arrest. Getting a criminal record could affect future job prospects and make it more difficult to travel to countries like the USA. The police can also confiscate alcohol from someone, no matter what their age, if they believe it has been, or will be drunk by someone under 18 in a public place.
How much is too much for under 18s to drink?
The UK chief medical officers recommend an alcohol-free childhood is the healthiest and best option.
The below links have further details broken down by country:
There’s lots of debate about whether it’s OK to let children have a small amount of alcohol to try - some people call this the continental approach. But there’s no scientific evidence to prove this gives children a responsible attitude to drinking in later life. (3)
It may be tempting to offer your child a sip of alcohol on special occasions so they don’t feel left out. This could send mixed messages about whether they are or aren’t allowed to drink.
Of course, children are naturally curious, so they’ll probably ask you questions if they see you drinking and want to try some. Rather than offering them a sip, use this as a chance to talk to them openly and honestly about the facts.
You might think that allowing your child to try alcohol will demystify any uncertainties they may have. Instead, as with issues like smoking and drugs, it’s better to let them know they can ask you anything, at any time, about alcohol. If you don’t know the answer, be honest and suggest you find out together.
If you’ve already given your child a drink, it’s best to be honest and explain that if they carry on drinking it could harm them. Reassure them that if they stop, any effects drinking has already on their body are likely to be reversible, but if you’re worried it’s best to talk to your GP.
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(1) The Crown Prosecution Service, ‘Licensing of alcohol’. Available at:http://www.cps.gov.uk/legal/l_to_o/licensing_of_alcohol
(2) Gov.uk website. ‘Alcohol and young people – the law’. Available at:https://www.gov.uk/alcohol-young-people-law
(3) National Archives website, ‘Guidance on the consumption of alcohol by children and young people'. Available at:http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130107105354/http://www.dh.gov.uk/prod_consum_dh/groups/dh_digitalassets/documents/digitalasset/dh_110256.pdf
Page updated: September 2014
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- Key facts on alcohol and the law
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