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30 April 2014, 08:35
Children as young as 12 in Essex are being referred to specialist drug and alcohol treatment services.
An investigation by the Press Association found hundreds of youngsters across the UK are identified as at risk.
The youngest is said to be four years old.
Treatment experts said the most common reason for children to come into contact with drugs and alcohol is through their parents and charites are calling for improved education in schools.
The Government defended the old and new curriculum, adding that all pupils should be taught abut how drugs and other substances can be harmful to the body.
Using freedom of information laws, the Press Association approached councils across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and found children as young as four had been referred by education and children's services to alcohol and drug specialists in South Ayrshire.
Elsewhere, eight-year-olds had been referred to services in Waltham Forest and East Ayrshire, while nine-year-olds had been referred in Herefordshire, Liverpool, Oxfordshire, Rutland, the Scottish Borders and West Berkshire. Authorities in Bury, Calderdale, Halton, Hull, Monmouthshire and Rochdale had seen 10-year-olds referred.
Andrew Brown, director of programmes at charity Mentor UK, which works to protect children from drug and alcohol misuse, said he was shocked at the findings of the Press Association investigation.
Mr Brown, a member of the Supervisory Board of the European Society for Prevention Research, said: "We think it is vital that alcohol and drug education improve. Our own survey of teachers suggests that at the moment delivery is inconsistent, and that the norm is to timetable only one or two sessions a year.
"This may sound sufficient, but evidence would suggest that longer programmes that systematically build skills and values are much more likely to prevent young people from coming to harm than one-off lessons.''
A referral can mean the child is vulnerable to drug and alcohol misuse through exposure from a parent or other relative, or could have started abusing substances themselves.
Some 366 children aged 12 or under were referred for treatment in 2012/13 in England, according to the most recent figures from Public Health England, compared with 433 in 2011/12.
More than half of under-13s - 59% - received treatment for cannabis misuse, while a third were treated for alcohol misuse. A small number abused solvents.
Children are most commonly referred for treatment by education providers or youth offending teams.
Steve McCabe, shadow minister for children and families, said he was ``shocked'' by the findings.
Mr McCabe was a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee when it called for a royal commission to examine UK drug policy.
"This would certainly tend to suggest that the Government's current strategy towards drugs isn't working and seems to support the findings of last year's inquiry by the Home Affairs Select Committee,'' he said.
"Although the committee report didn't look specifically at children, it acknowledged the shortage of specialist treatment facilities and the dangers of the drugs strategy being largely a criminal and law enforcement issue rather than a public health-led issue as in some other countries - for example, the committee was interested in the way Portugal manages drug problems.
"I have thought for a long time that there needs to be a proper PSHE (personal, social, health and economic education) strategy to deal with many of the challenges of growing up and this should not be confined to schools but must be woven into the fabric of activity in schools.
"This applies to issues such as sex and relationship education, pornography, drugs and a broad range of other social matters. I think it also highlights the need for an urgent improvement in children and adolescent mental health services.''