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The link between alcohol, drugs, and risky sexual behaviour among young people is being ignored and could lead to a crisis in sexual health, a report has warned.
The Independent Advisory Group on Sexual Health and HIV, set up by the Department of Health, in England, in 2003, has called for a cross governmental strategy to tackle the problem and for statutory personal, social, and health education to ensure young people receive clear and factual information on the effects of drugs, alcohol, and sex.
The findings come after a recent Unicef study, Child Poverty in Perspective: an Overview of Child Well-Being in Rich Countries, which found that more children in the United Kingdom have had sexual intercourse by the age of 15 than in any other country; more of them have been drunk two or more times at ages 11, 13, and 15 years than in any other country; and they are the third highest users of cannabis (BMJ 2007;334:331 doi: 10.1136/bmj.39122.641586.DB).
Mark Bellis, head of the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University and one of the authors of the Independent Advisory Group's report, said that the use of drugs and alcohol was “fuel for a sexual health crisis.”
He said that alcohol can increase the risk of having unprotected sex; that people who drink more alcohol have more sexual partners; and that alcohol is the most common drug used in drink spiking and drug rape.
He also warned that drugs were often used for many sexual purposes, including increasing libido and prolonging sex. He added that people who used drugs often forgot about sexual health messages, and drugs were sometimes used to ensure those messages were “forgotten.”
Professor Bellis said, “The fact is that many people working in the sexual health field and in the drugs field are not aware of the effects of drugs on sexual behaviour or sexual health, or vice versa. We have a dilemma in terms of this lack of knowledge regarding sex and drugs.”
The government's website for young people's about drugs, Frank (www.talktofrank.com), has no links to sexual health sites, said Professor Bellis.
The report also highlighted the role of advertising, which often positively links sexual behaviour with alcohol.
The report called for the restrictions on advertisements for condoms to be lifted. Currently these can only be shown after 9 pm except on Channel 4, which can show them after 7 pm. Unwrapped condoms can only be shown after 10.30 pm.
Professor Bellis mentioned an advertisement for the perfume Opium that featured a naked Sophie Dahl in a sexual pose. “It would not be possible to use anything like this for a condom advert,” he said. “But the advertisers got away with it for a long time to sell a perfume named Opium.”
The report also called for primary care trusts to work with youth services and teenage pregnancy coordinators to ensure that alcohol, drugs, and sexual health link with public health policy.
The report, Sex, Drugs, Alcohol and Young People: a Review of the Impact Drugs and Alcohol Have on Young People's Sexual Behaviour, is available at www.dh.gov.uk.