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Drop in children’s smoking and drug use
Latest school survey shows falls in children's drug use and smoking (and an increase in vaping).

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Young people's smoking, drinking & drug use

The latest survey of almost 10,000 secondary school pupils in England in years 7 to 11 (mostly aged 11 to 15), and their smoking, drinking and drug use was published yesterday (7 September 2022). It covers a range of topics including prevalence, habits, attitudes, and wellbeing. This survey is usually run every two years, however, due to the impact that the Covid pandemic had on school opening and attendance, it was not possible to run the survey as initially planned in 2020; instead it was delivered in the 2021 school year. The main findings are summarised below.


In 2021, 12% of 11-15 year old pupils had ever smoked, down from 16% of pupils in 2018, and is the lowest level ever recorded by this survey.  There has been a steady decline since 1996, when 49% of pupils had smoked at least once. The 12% of pupils who had ever smoked consisted of regular smokers (1% of pupils), occasional smokers (2%), those who used to smoke (2%), and those who have tried smoking (7%). The chart below shows the percentages of school children who have ever smoked over the last forty years.


Pupils were asked about e-cigarettes for the first time in the 2014 survey. New legislation came into force in England and Wales on 1 October 2015, introducing a minimum age of sale of 18 for e-cigarettes. In 2015, Public Health England (PHE) published an independent evidence review on electronic cigarettes which concluded that the devices are significantly less harmful than smoking. The review also found no evidence that electronic cigarettes act as a route into smoking for children or non-smokers.

The proportion of pupils classified as current e-cigarette users has increased from 6% in 2018, to 9% in 2021. The rise in current use was not seen for lifetime use. 22% of pupils reported they had ever used e-cigarettes, compared to 25% in 2018 (not a significant change). Interestingly, girls are now more likely than boys to be current e-cigarette users; 10% for girls compared to 7% for boys. Regular use is similar (4% for boys and 5% for girls).


In 2021, 40% of pupils said they had ever had an alcoholic drink, compared to 44% in 2018. Prevalence, of course, increases with age – from 13% of 11 year olds to 65% of 15 year olds. 6% of all pupils said they usually drank alcohol at least once per week, the same as in 2018. A further 11% of pupils said they usually drank between once a fortnight and once a month; making a total of 16% (based on rounded percentages) who said they usually drank alcohol at least once a month. The proportion usually drinking once a week increased with age, from 1% of 11 year olds to 14% of 15 year olds.

The report includes an interesting infographic (reproduced below) showing the 10 factors with a significant association to children having drunk alcohol in the last week.


Interestingly, after several years in which different sources (particularly the Crime Survey for England & Wales) have reported increasing use of drugs by young people, this school survey shows a fall in use for lifetime, last year and last month use. In 2021, 18% of pupils reported they had ever taken drugs, down from 24% in 2018. 17% of boys and 19% of girls had ever taken drugs (not a statistically significant difference). Prevalence for boys fell from 25% in 2018. The likelihood of having ever taken drugs increased with age, from 7% of 11 year olds to 32% of 15 year olds. 12%  of pupils said that they had taken any drugs in the last year, down from 17% in 2018. 6% of pupils said that they had taken any drugs in the last month, which is a fall from 9% in 2018. The infographic below shows reported last month drug use for school children over the last 20 years.

These reported drops in school children’s smoking and drug use are interesting although it is not clear to what extent (if at all) this decline is attributable to the pandemic which children spending much more time at home during the various lockdowns. The survey itself was scheduled to be undertaken in 2020 but was delayed a year because of the pandemic. The survey does ask questions about the impact of COVID lockdowns throughout but does not draw direct conclusions. It will be interesting to see what the next survey in this series reports in two years time.

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