Working together, the Police, Education, Action for Children, Social Work and NHS Highland aim to change attitudes to alcohol by providing education and support to the young people and their parents or carers.
In a new approach for Caithness, Police patrols will bring any underage drinkers into Police stations in Wick and Thurso, parents and carers will be contacted and education and advice will be given as to the potential consequences of alcohol abuse at an early age.
Two relatively new local posts will help to support the initiative. A Youth Officer, funded by the council and working with the Police and a Health Improvement Co-ordinator, based in Wick and working with the Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross Youth Action Team will be on hand to give advice.
Police have already been targeting local suppliers of alcohol to underage children in recent test purchase operations. They have stopped and searched children or young people who they believe to be in possession of alcohol, any suspected alcohol is seized and destroyed. The parents or carers are written to and informed of police action.
Care is always given to ensuring the safety of the child or young person, including arranging immediate medical care if necessary.
North Division Commander, Superintendent Julian Innes, said: "Our approach is to underpin enforcement with education and behavioural change. Underage drinking is an underlying factor in anti-social behaviour and can lead to more serious crime, as well as health problems and safety issues.
"Parents, schools and communities have a combined responsibility to help to protect our young people and children from the dangers of underage drinking. We as Police want to work closely with communities and other agencies to tackle this unacceptable social problem and we will be actively seeking out and taking action against those who supply alcohol to children."
Margaret Davidson, Chair of Social Work, commented: "The issue of underage drinking and the potential damage it can cause to young people themselves, their families and the local communities is a very real concern for parents and the community as a whole.
"I am therefore very supportive of this joint initiative and am very pleased to see Council Services of Social Work, Education Culture and Sport working so closely with the Police and Health to address this issue. We recognise this is approach will only succeed if we are able to engage with young people and enable them to make more positive choices about their leisure time.
"As part of this approach, the Council has funded crucial Youth Co-ordinator posts to support a number of sport and leisure initiatives across the Highlands and to further strengthen partnership activity to help young people to make the right choices."
Youth Co-ordinator for Caithness, Sutherland and East Ross PC Alan MacRae said: "We recognise that it is a minority of underage children who regularly consume alcohol and that most of our young people choose not to drink. However there is understandable concern about the safety and behaviour of the young people who are abusing alcohol in our communities.
"Those involved are leaving themselves exposed and vulnerable to the range of problems associated with alcohol, none more so than the risk to their own health and personal safety.
"It's important that we tackle the issues together and encourage the right choices to be made. The most important people we need to win round on this issue are the young people themselves and their parents and carers."
Health Improvement Co-ordinator Steve James, who is employed by NHS Highland, said: "There is no doubt that we have a growing problem with alcohol abuse and that is why changing our attitudes towards drinking to excess is a public health priority.
"For those young people who are abusing alcohol the message is for them to think about what they have to lose. In the long term it can lead to liver damage, stomach cancer and heart disease, but on any one night it could lead to being dangerously ill or injured. A visit to accident and emergency can be avoided by making the right choices.
"Myself and a substance misuse worker from the Youth Action Team will be working alongside the police and will attend at the police station when the children are brought in and their parents attend. We will be able to offer advice and information on alcohol in order to reduce associated risks and to offer follow on support if necessary."
Suzy Calder, Substance Misuse Strategy and Implementation Manager for the Highland Alcohol and Drugs Partnership, said: "Ensuring young people have access to appropriate information and support on alcohol and drug use is a key priority for the Highland Alcohol and Drugs Partnership.
"This initiative will help to develop a strong partnership response which includes parents and carers. It is important that all parents and carers are supported to talk to their children about alcohol and drugs."
Bill Fernie, Chairman of Education Culture and Sport, said: "I welcome this new approach by Northern Constabulary as it recognises the long-term damage that young people might do to themselves as well as the short-term problems to the localities in which they live.
"By tackling the health issues early on it may save years of grief to both individuals and those around them. We are increasingly aware of the rising costs of damage through inappropriate alcohol consumption at an early age and any intervention with young people has to be encouraged for the benefits that will be realised in future years."
NOTE TO NEWS EDITORS
Last year, the NHS published new advice that children under 15 should never be given alcohol under any circumstances and for optimum health anyone under the age of 18 should avoid alcohol, but if they do drink then it should be minimal amounts, no more often than once a week and should be with the guidance of a parent or carer or in a supervised environment.
In the same year, the Highland Lifestyle Survey, undertaken in all schools, found that 53% of 14-15 year olds had consumed alcohol in the previous week with 15% saying they had consumed a lot. Although the number of younger children who had consumed alcohol was lower, there was still a significant number of children as young as 10 or 11 who had consumed varying amounts.
So far this year (January 1, 2010 and March 23, 2010), 16 people under the age of 18 have been admitted directly to the Accident and Emergency Department at Caithness General Hospital as alcohol related admissions. The figure for the whole of last year was 33.
Children, young people and their parents/carers who are concerned about their drinking are advised to either contact their GP or to get free and confidential advice from DRINKLINE on 0800 7 314314 or by visiting InfoScotland.
The Youth Action Team can be contacted via Highland Council, Schools or Health Services.
More information on young people's services is available on the Highland Alcohol and Drugs Partnership website at http://www.highland-adp.org.uk/ and http://whyletdrinkdecide.direct.gov.uk/ which is the website for a UK wide campaign launched in January of this year to encourage parents to talk to their children about alcohol before they are exposed to it in social settings as teenagers.