Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use: New trends and what they mean

The latest instalment of the Health and Social Care Information Centre’s (HSCIC) ongoing survey of young people sheds light on several issues that continue to whirl around media and public opinion. Since the 1980s, the Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use Among Young People in England series has been a valuable indicator of current and emerging trends in young people’s attitudes towards drug use. This year’s report confirms the continuation of a number of positive trends, highlights areas for improvement, and, for the first time, provides useful insight into the scale of the NPS problem among young people.

The broad trends are overwhelmingly positive. The number of 11-to-15-year-olds who have tried alcohol is at its lowest level (38%) since the survey began, and only 8% drank in the last week. There are a number of potential reasons for this ongoing decline – DEMOS recently reported that social media is cited as a distraction and/or a deterrent to heavy drinking for as many as 4 in 10 young people – but it appears that the trend is due to a mix of changing attitudes towards health and drunkenness, as well as the impact of migrants from non-drinking cultures.

alcohol trend

But the numbers should still be treated with caution: HSCIC estimates suggest that 240,000 11-to-15-year olds drank in the last week, representing a significant amount of underage drinking; and almost one in ten young people drank 15 units or more. Further, these cases of heavy underage drinking are linked to other risky behaviours, including smoking, drug use and truancy, suggesting that there is a need to target prevention initiatives at a significant minority of vulnerable young people.

The survey also highlighted the profound influence of parents on young people’s drinking behaviour. Only 2% of pupils who said their parents did not like them to drink had drunk alcohol in the last week, compared to 44% of those whose parents did not mind. Along with the fact that families are one of the main sources of procuring alcohol, this strengthens the evidence that parents can be one of the most important protective factors in young peoples’ lives.

UntitledHSCIC findings with regard to other drugs were similarly positive: the number of 11-to-15-year-olds who have ever smoked (19%) is as low as it has ever been; and, although the decline has slowed, fewer school-aged children have ever taken illegal drugs. Given the tenor of media reporting – headlines such as, ‘Will your child die from a legal high?’ and ‘Primary school kids “taking legal highs”’ – data on NPS is particularly intriguing. 2.5% of young people had tried an NPS, compared to 15% who had taken illicit drugs, most commonly cannabis; and despite being the ‘legal high capital of Europe’, only half of respondents had heard of ‘legal highs’.

Finally, the survey elicited insight into the status of drug education in schools. Echoing Mentor’s findings in 2013, HSCIC report that the vast majority of schools provide one lesson per year on smoking, drinking and drug use, with fewer than one in ten schools offering lessons more than once a term. Consequently, satisfaction with drug education has decreased in recent years: today, 60% of young people think schools gave enough information about smoking, 56% about drinking and 54% about drug use; and almost half of young people could not recall learning about any of these.

Therefore, despite a continual downward trend in drug use and some improvements in drug education, there are still some areas of concern. In particular, there is a need to target the most vulnerable young people, who are often susceptible to a range of interlinked risky behaviours. The report also highlights certain widely reported problems that are perhaps not as serious as popular opinion suggests. Although NPS remain a concern, their use is not prevalent among 11-to-15-year-olds, which suggests that a holistic approach to drug education and prevention at an early age remains the best way to protect young people from a range of interconnected risks.