Vodka binge ends dreams for schoolgirl

Thursday, November 29, 2007

A 15-Year-Old schoolgirl broke her back in a horror fall after binge-drinking vodka that was illegally sold to her and her teenage friends.

Sophie Swanson panicked when her father arrived to pick her up from a party and climbed over a garden wall, falling more than 20 feet.

The Trinity Academy pupil fractured two vertebrae and narrowly escaped being paralysed for life. She has now had to give up her dream of working as a hairdresser, as well as promising amateur dancing and football careers.

M&R Stores in Granton Road, which sold the one-litre bottle of Glen's vodka to Sophie's two 15-year-old friends, this week lost its alcohol licence for three months.

Sophie's father Stephen - who found his daughter unable to move on a cycle path minutes after the fall - attacked the city licensing board's decision, calling it a "slap in the face".

Politicians, police and alcohol campaigners said the "terrible" accident should reinforce the tough stance needed against shopkeepers who sell alcohol to children.

On the evening of Saturday, August 25, Sophie waited outside the off-licence while her friends bought the £11 bottle. They drank about a third at one of the girl's homes before taking the rest to a party at another friend's house in Dudley Crescent, Newhaven.

Sophie said: "My dad came to pick me up and I panicked because I knew he wouldn't approve of me drinking, so I ran into the garden and climbed over the wall and fell down the slope over a 20-feet wall. I didn't even have my shoes on when I did it. All I was thinking was I'd get into trouble."

Mr Swanson, who searched for his daughter after seeing her coat still at the party, called an ambulance and she was rushed to Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

Sophie was unable to move her arms and legs for almost four days in hospital, and is still experiencing excruciating back pain.

She said: "Binge drinking has ruined my life. Because of getting drunk I broke my back and have had to give up the things I want to do. I didn't even know the drink was that strong.

"The doctors told me I was lucky not to be permanently paralysed. I was just two centimetres from being disabled for life."

She has only recently begun walking without a stick and returned to school full-time, and has given up her hairdressing classes because she can't stand up for hours at a time.

The award-winning tap dancer no longer attends the Mary Phelan dance club in Leith, and is unlikely to play again for Spartan FC's girls' team any time soon.

Sophie, of Cables Wynd, Leith, said: "I've been told I will always have problems now with my back, and moving about might be difficult when I'm older."

She added: "Everything I enjoyed doing or wanted to do, I probably can't now because I thought it was cool and clever to have a drink. I know it's not and would tell anyone now it's not."

Mohammed Taj and Malik Iqbal, the owners and joint-licensees of M&R Stores, had their licence to sell alcohol suspended for three months on Monday.

Sophie's father, a 45-year-old self-employed builder, said he was disgusted at the leniency of the suspension.

He said: "My daughter's life has been ruined all because two girls were allowed to buy an £11 bottle of vodka. A three-month suspension of their licence is like a slap in the face for us and a slap on the wrist for them.

"I am angry that this is all the council has seen fit to give them. I am angry that the shopkeepers can get away with such a light suspension for selling drink to kids who are clearly not old enough to drink."

Sophie's mother, Gail, 45, said they were considering taking out a private action against the shop for compensation.

She said: "Our daughter has gone from being a very active young girl to an inactive girl. She's had to stop dancing, something she did since she was three, give up her sports and now probably her future has been affected by this. I am raging that they can do this and sell alcohol to schoolchildren. Their licence should be revoked completely."

When questioned by police, Mr Taj and Mr Iqbal denied selling any alcohol to under-age customers. They said the girls were asked if they were over 18 and replied that they were, but they did not ask to see proof of age.

The Evening News approached Mr Taj at the shop, but he refused to speak about the licence suspension or to accept responsibility for what had happened to the youngster. Ironically, a scheme called Challenge 21 is currently operating in the area, where shop counter staff are encouraged to quiz anyone buying drink who looks under 21.

Sgt Ian Gourlay, of the Drylaw Police Anti-Social Behaviour and Youth Problem Team, said there was a need for shopkeepers to be more responsible when selling alcohol. He said some shops in the area were voluntarily using ultraviolet marker pens to mark bottles most likely to be bought by youths.

Sgt Gourlay said: "We ask licensees to be responsible. And we give them every opportunity to police themselves, so that they don't end up risking their business by selling to under-age drinkers.

"We will be going around off-licences again just to remind shopkeepers of what can happen to them. I'd also say that anyone caught buying drink for youngsters can be fined £1000."

And Tom Wood, chairman of Action on Alcohol and Drugs in Edinburgh, said: "We have here a terrible situation where a young girl has been sold alcohol illegally, got drunk and suffered an appalling accident as a result.

"The selling of alcohol brings with it responsibility. Should licence holders choose not to observe the law when it comes to sales to under-agers, then it is absolutely right that there will be a consequence to their actions, and that includes the removal of their licence."

Councillor Marjorie Thomas, the city's licensing leader, described the three-month ban for M&R Stores as "a shot across the bows", and said further action could be taken.

She said: "I am happy that we have taken the right course of action on this and we saw a three-month ban as being a shot across the bows and a warning to other traders.

"The owners of the shop will have to re-apply for their licence, and at that time a longer ban could be handed down."
Sophie case shows 'extent of problem'

JUSTICE Minister Kenny MacAskill said that Sophie Swanson's case showed there was a "clear problem" with under-age drinking in Scotland.

Mr MacAskill said that licensing boards were being given increased powers to clamp down on shops that sell alcohol to youngsters.

"Cases like this show there is a clear problem with under-age drinking in Scotland. It is a situation that damages communities and an issue that we must tackle immediately," he said.

"We are increasing the powers that licensing boards and licensing standards officers have to clamp down on this problem.

"This is not just a political issue. There needs to be cross-party support given to licensing boards across the country."

The Justice Minister has been a staunch supporter of introducing tighter measures to deal with Scotland's alcohol problem.

source: Edinburgh Evening News