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More young people using drugs than smoking
Latest NHS survey of secondary school pupils suggests young people's drug use may be on the rise again.

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Are young people using more drugs?

Last week (2 November 2017) the NHS published the report of its annual survey of secondary school pupils in England in years 7 to 11 (mostly aged 11 to 15). 12,051 pupils in 177 schools completed questionnaires in the autumn term of 2016.

This is the most recent survey in a series that began in 1982. Each survey since 1998 has included a core set of questions on smoking, drinking and drug use. In 2000, the survey questions changed to focus on smoking and drinking or on drug use in alternate years and in 2016, the survey reverted back to including both drinking/smoking and drugs focused questions in one survey.

The survey report presents information on the percentage of pupils who have ever smoked, tried alcohol or taken drugs. The report also explores the attitudes of school children towards smoking and drinking. Relationships between smoking, drinking and drug use are explored along with the links between smoking, drinking and drug use and other factors such as age, gender, ethnicity and previous truancy or exclusion.

New areas included in the survey for the first time were nitrous oxide, new psychoactive substances (also known as legal highs), beliefs about drinking, whether pupils had ever got drunk and consequences of drinking.

Key Facts

In 2016

  • 19 per cent of 11-15 year old pupils had ever smoked, which is similar to 2014. Interestingly, 11% of 15 year olds used e-cigarettes.
  • 44 per cent of pupils had ever drunk alcohol which is not comparable with earlier surveys.
  • 24 per cent of pupils reported they had ever taken drugs. This compares to 15 per cent in 2014. Part of the increase since 2014 may be explained by the addition of questions on nitrous oxide and new psychoactive substances. After allowing for this however, it still represents a large increase which has not been observed in other data sources. Therefore an estimate from the next survey in 2018 is required before we can be confident that these survey results reflect a genuine trend in the wider population. In the meantime the results for drug taking from this survey should be treated with caution.
  • 3 per cent of pupils were weekly (regular) smokers, 10 per cent had drunk alcohol in the last week and 10 per cent had taken drugs in the last month.

Attitudes to smoking, drinking and taking drugs

Pupils were more likely to find one-off experimentation acceptable than doing something as frequently as once a week.

Pupils were much more likely to think that drinking alcohol was OK (50% to try, 25% to do every week), followed by smoking (24% and 9% respectively), and getting drunk (19% and 7%).

Drug use was much less likely to be seen as acceptable. 11% thought it was OK for someone of their age to try cannabis and 6% thought it OK to take once a week.

Levels of approval for sniffing glue and taking cocaine were even lower.


As the reports’ authors point out, the most interesting finding here is an apparent increase in the number of school-children using drugs. Although this survey is only one source of information, it is well-respected and has a reasonably large (over 12,000) sample. Findings from this year’s Crime Survey for England and Wales also showed an increase in the number of young adults (16-24 year olds) using drugs — 19.2% had taken a drug in 2016/17, compared to 18% in the previous year.

The proportion of people taking drugs fell steadily over the last decade, leveling off in the last year. We now have a couple of possible indicators that levels of use may be about to increase again.


Blog posts in the drug and alcohol category are kindly sponsored by Breaking Free Group which has developed a powerful and adaptable digital health platform which targets the underlying psychological and lifestyle factors that drive addictive behaviours. Breaking Free has no editorial influence on the contents of this site.

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