Last reviewed 15 November 2017

Freelance writer Michael Evans looks at the problems teenagers face in coping with the pressures to resist alcohol, smoking and drugs.

The myths

If the popular press is to be believed, today’s teenagers are all drug-crazed, chain-smoking alcoholics, but in reality nothing could be further from the truth.

A survey carried out in 2014 by the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) highlighted the attitudes of 11- to 15-year-olds. More than half (52%) thought that it was wrong for someone of their age to try drinking alcohol, while almost three quarters (74%) thought that it was not OK to try smoking and only 9% thought that it was OK for someone of their age to try cannabis.

To drink or not to drink

An increasing number of young people have now chosen to avoid alcohol. NHS England reports that in 2014 the number of 11- to 15-year-olds who had drunk alcohol at least once was 38%. By comparison, in 2003 this figure was 61%. However, those who do drink are tending to drink more.

In 2014, almost half of pupils who had consumed alcohol during the previous four weeks said that they had been drunk at least once during that time. 71% of boys and 57% of girls said that they had done so deliberately. Reasons given included to look cool in front of their friends, to be more sociable, because it gives them a rush, or because they felt pressurised to do so.

There is a strong relationship between pupils’ drinking behaviour and parental attitudes to drinking alcohol. Only 2% of 11- to 15-year old drinkers who had drunk alcohol during the previous week had done so against their parents’ wishes, while 16% said that their parents didn’t mind them drinking, provided they drank in moderation. 44% said that their parents didn’t mind how much they drank.

Fancy a smoke?

With respect to smoking among the 11–15 age group, 2014 was the lowest level recorded since the survey began in 1982, with 18% saying that they had smoked at least once. In 2002, this figure was 42%. Only 3% said that they smoked at least one cigarette a week, while in 2002, 10% were regular smokers.

Again, usage increased with age. Fewer than 0.5% of 12-year-olds were regular smokers, but by the time they reached 15, this figure had risen to 8%. Among regular smokers, 56% reported that they had tried to give up, but had been unsuccessful.

Pupils who lived with other people who smoked were more likely to become regular smokers, but in 2014 only 26% thought that it was OK to try smoking to see what it was like.

Eighty-five percent of non-smoking pupils felt that it was a wish to look cool in front of their friends that caused people of their age to smoke. Smokers on the other hand felt that people of their age smoked because of its effects, such as helping them to cope with stress or because it gave them a good feeling.

Getting a buzz from something else

Turning to drugs, the HSCIC report stated that in 2014 the number of 11- to 15-year-olds who had ever taken drugs was 15%, with 10% having taken drugs during the previous year and 6% taking them during the previous month.

Understandably, use increases with age. While only 6% of 11-year-olds said that they had tried drugs, for 15-year-olds this figure had risen to 24%. 6.7% of drug takers reported taking cannabis during the previous year, while 2.9% had inhaled glue, gas, aerosols or solvents.

Something that has drawn a lot of attention in the popular press are what were formerly called “legal highs”, but are now more properly known as “New Psychoactive Substances (NPS)”. These could not be marketed as drugs, but were sold as “bath salts”, “plant food” or “research chemicals” and labelled as being unsuitable for human consumption.

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act that came into operation in May 2016, these drugs are now banned, but Johann Grundlingh, an accident and emergency (A&E) consultant told the BBC that new drugs are hitting the market every week.

Users have no idea of the strengths of these products and indeed, they generally don’t even know what chemicals they are taking. This naturally presents an A&E department with a major problem should a young person have an allergic reaction, and these reactions can range from feeling unwell to mild confusion and in extreme cases to coma and even death.

Much has been written about the extent of use of NPS, but the HSCIC survey reports that only 6% of pupils said that they had ever been offered these drugs with only 2% taking them during the past year.

The true extent of the problem

Looking at numbers, the survey indicated that during 2014, in England around 90,000 pupils aged between 11 and 15 were regular smokers and 240,000 had drunk alcohol during the past week. 180,000 had taken drugs during the past month.

Forty-six percent of the age group had tried smoking, drunk alcohol or taken drugs at least once in their lives and pupils who smoked, drank alcohol or took drugs, were likely to have done more than one of these things.

Pupils were more likely to regard drinking alcohol as being more acceptable than smoking, although they were less likely to approve of drunkenness. Drug use was generally seen as unacceptable.

There were significant variations with respect to where pupils lived and their ethnicity. For instance, in London and the South East there were far fewer regular smokers than in the North East. Also, the number of pupils in London who had never drunk alcohol was significantly lower than in all other regions.

White pupils were far more likely to have smoked than Asian or Black pupils and white pupils are far more likely to have drunk alcohol than Asian pupils. However, during the past 10 years there have been falls in the prevalence of drinking among all ethnic groups.

While there is some justifiable cause for encouragement, there is no reason for complacency. Percentages may be lower, but actual numbers are still quite high.

Education for management of risk

The Mentor Foundation is a leading charity that works to prevent misuse of drugs and alcohol among young people by helping them to develop life skills that they need in order to deal with challenging situations.

Its teaching strategy is to avoid horror stories of the dreadful consequences since there is strong evidence that this doesn’t work. Young people generally believe themselves to be immortal so they are happy to carry on as before because as far as they are concerned, dreadful consequences will never happen to them.

Young people need facts. They are quite aware that many people drink alcohol without problems, so it is important to discuss with them the possible consequences without overstating the case. The avoidance of being put into an embarrassing situation that might damage their self-respect can be an important starting point. Regular drinking has also been associated with poorer grades at GCSE and motor vehicle accidents involving alcohol are one of the leading causes of teen deaths.

When discussing smoking, it is better to discuss the benefits of quitting or not even starting, rather than dwelling on what can happen if you don’t quit and the same applies to drugs. Again, telling pupils that they are likely to die if they smoke cigarettes will always be countered by responses such as my 87-year-old granddad still smokes and he shows no sign of dying, so why should I stop?

Life is full of pressures for 11- to 15-year-olds. Peer pressure with respect to alcohol, smoking and drugs can be significant. Good guidance can be vital in helping young people to deal with these pressures.

There are various help agencies, including: