The number of secondary school pupils who have taken drugs or used an e-cigarette has increased, and 44% have tried alcohol, according to new figures from NHS Digital.
Nearly a quarter of pupils (24%) reported they had taken drugs in 2016 (up from 15% in 2014) and 25% had tried e-cigarettes (up from 22%), according to NHS Digital’s latest ‘Smoking, Drinking And Drug Use Among Young People’ report.
Furthermore, almost one in five pupils (19%) had smoked a cigarette – similar to 2014, but a significant fall from 1996 when 49% of pupils had ever smoked.
The most common source of obtaining drugs, cigarettes and e-cigarettes was through friends.
However, the drinking figures may come as no surprise to many parents, as 70% of the children who had drunk alcohol in the last four weeks had been given it by their parents.
The survey, conducted by Ipsos Mori, involved 12,051 students from 177 schools, who were answered a series of questions under exam conditions about their alcohol, cigarette and drug use.
Girls aged 11-15 were more likely to smoke and drink alcohol than boys.
One in five girls had smoked in 2016 compared to 18% of boys and 11% of girls had been drunk in the past month compared to 7% of boys.
Almost one in five pupils (19%) said they had ever tried a cigarrette, but just 3% called themselves “regular smokers” - and 20% of these were committed to giving up.
The proportion of pupils who had ever smoked increased with age from 4% of 11-year-olds, to 36% of 15-year-olds.
The most common source of getting cigarettes (43%) was being given them by friends. A further 38% usually bought cigarettes from shops, but this is a sharp decline from 57% in 2014 - and perhaps a sign that the prohibition of the display of tobacco products in all shops since 2015 may be having an impact.
There also seems to have been a general decline in positive attitudes towards smoking: Just 24% of the pupils thought it was OK to try a cigarette to see what it was like and 9% thought it was OK to smoke once a week.
More pupils had tried an e-cigarette than had tried a cigarette: 25% of pupils said they had used an e-cigarette, which was up from 22% in 2014 (the first year they were asked the question).
Boys (7%) were more likely than girls (5%) to smoke e-cigarettes.
The majority of those who smoke e-cigarettes were also regular smokers. Just 13% of non-smokers reported having ever used e-cigarettes.
Whether a pupil had drunk alcohol was related to their age, increasing from 15% of 11-year-olds to 73% of 15-year-olds.
Pupils were more likely to drink with friends (62%) than parents (59%), but only by a marginal amount.
Children were most likely to obtain alcohol from their parents (70%). Just over half (54%) got alcohol from friends and 41% took it from home with permission.
Yet despite this, 50% of pupils believe their parents would not or did not want them to drink alcohol, however this perception decreased as they got older.
Teenagers’ perception of how many people their own age drink alcohol has changed. Just over half (51%) believe “few or no” people their age drink alcohol. This has increased from 37% in 2004.
“Pupils were more likely to drink with friends (62%) than parents (59%), but only by a marginal amount.”
The idea of teenagers sneaking off to drink alcopops in parks is outdated as 62% said they drank alcohol in their own home, 43% had done so at parties with friends (43%) and 41% at someone else’s home.
Beer, lager and cider accounted for more than half of the units (57%) of alcohol consumed by pupils in the last week.
These drinks made up two thirds of boys’ consumption (66%), compared with less than half of girls’ consumption (47%).
Pupils who drank alcohol in the last week consumed an average of 9.6 units that week. Consumption was lowest among 11- to 13-year-olds (6.9 units), and highest among 14-year-olds (11.1 units).
The report was unable to make comparisons between these figures and those obtained in 2014, due to a change in the questions.
In 2016, 24% of pupils reported they had ever taken drugs, an increase from 15% in 2014.
Part of the increase may be explained by the addition of questions on nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and new psychoactive substances (previously known as ‘legal highs’). However, the researchers state that even after allowing for this the figures “still represent a large increase”.
“Therefore, the results for drugs taking from this survey should be treated with caution and more years of data are needed to understand if this is a genuine trend,” the cautioned.
The questionnaire covered the following types of drugs: amphetamines, cannabis, cocaine, crack, ecstasy, heroin, ketamine, LSD, magic mushrooms, mephedrone, methadone, poppers (e.g. amyl nitrite), tranquillisers, volatile substances such as gas, glue, aerosols and other solvents, new psychoactive substances, nitrous oxide and ‘other’ drugs (not obtained from a doctor or chemist).
The likelihood of having ever taken drugs increased with age, from 11% of 11-year-olds to 37% of 15-year-olds
Just over half (52%) of those pupils said they were in a street, park or other outdoor area when they last obtained drugs; 14% said they were at school and 14% at someone else’s home.
The majority (88%) said they were with friend when they last took drugs and just 7% of pupils said they were alone.
Information and support for parents and children:
Alcohol Concern has an online guide on how to speak to young people about alcohol here.
Drink Aware has advice and guidance on dealing with and preventing underage drinking.
DrugWise provides access to evidence-based drug, alcohol and tobacco information and resources, including an international knowledge hub.
Family Lives provides help and support for anyone caring for a child. They health a wealth of information online, as well as a helpline.
Childline runs a helpline for young people who are able to get support on issues such as stopping smoking. They have guidance here.