Affluent lifestyle leading children into temptation

Drink, drugs, and gambling are on the increase. Louise Jury reports
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More of Britain's teenagers smoke, they face the greatest ever exposure to drugs and have gained a gambling habit with the National Lottery.

According to the latest findings from the Schools Health Education Unit of Exeter University, nearly a third of 14- and 15-year-olds had smoked at least one cigarette in the past week, the highest figure recorded in the 10 years the unit has been monitoring young people. And the National Lottery is proving a new temptation to young people with a quarter of 14- and 15-year-old boys and 16 per cent of 12- and 13-year-olds admitting spending cash on it in the last week - even though it is illegal for them to do so.

The survey of 24,000 children aged 10 to 15 confirmed a lifestyle of increasing affluence - reflected in smoking, gambling and other leisure activities.

There is increasing access to drugs, with the numbers experimenting with some illegal substance rising fivefold between 1989 and last year. Three- quarters of children over the age of 11 now say they know a drug user.

Nearly a third of mid-teen boys and a quarter of girls have tried cannabis at least once. Around one in 12 has tried LSD or another hallucinogen. Six per cent of the 12- and 13-year-olds had tried cannabis.

By the age of 13, 40 per cent of boys and half the girls have tried smoking. Sixteen per cent of boys and 22 per cent of girls in their mid-teens called themselves regular smokers. Nearly all wanted to give up.

A fifth of 14- and 15-year-old girls were able to buy cigarettes from a shop and 23 per cent of the boys purchased alcohol from an off-licence.

Almost half the boys drank beer or lager during the previous week with 7 per cent drinking more than 21 units. Nine per cent of the girls drank 14 units or more, until recently the Government's maximum recommended limit.

Dr David Regis, one of the researchers, said: "Sometimes our figures are used to indulge in young-people bashing.

"But overall, youngsters are moderate. They're experimenting with things a bit sometimes, but getting on with their lives reasonably successfully and turning into the cheerful successful adults.

"The changes from last year are pretty marginal, but since 1986 there have been lots of changes, including some dramatic changes. The exposure to illegal drugs is the highest its ever been," Dr Regis said.

Although fewer teenagers now do part-time work than five years ago, perhaps reflecting a greater pressure from exams, a third of teenagers do some part-time work to pay for their indulgences, with some earning more than pounds 30 a week.

The discrepancy found between the sexes in adult pay is reflected in gender variations even at this stage - older boys earn a typical pounds 13.46 a week compared to pounds 11.73 for girls. Twelve and 13-year-old boys make an average pounds 8.86 a week and the girls pounds 7.45.

Two-thirds of the teenage girls and more than a third of boys sometimes fear being physically attacked and 30 per cent of 14- and 15-year-old boys and 17 per cent of the girls sometimes carry protection when they go out. The girls most commonly carry a personal alarm but some carry knives.

While girls are obsessed with how they look, they dislike the sport or physical activity which might make a difference to the physique.

Boys are more sporty, but almost half of those in their mid-teens had spent time the previous evening playing games on the computer. Watching television is the most popular evening activity.

Girls worry about their weight more than boys, with half wanting to shed a few pounds compared with a quarter of the boys. They are also keener on healthy eating. But many simply miss meals instead of eating carefully. About a third of 14- and 15-year-old schoolgirls have nothing to eat at breakfast on a schoolday, and only some of those had something to drink. Twelve per cent had eaten no lunch on their previous day at school.

Another change is the capacity to spend money. "Ownership and control of money has changed, which has an effect on the whole area of growing- up skills," Dr Regis said.

"It opens up doors to opportunities and risks. Smoking or drinking and drugs are very expensive. Having more money provides an opportunity to engage in risky behaviour."

But not all the changes are negative. "My guess is that the hygiene levels among boys are among the highest ever. They are taking more baths and washing behind the ears," he said.

The Exeter team has been collating the health-related statistics since 1986. The data comes from health authorities and local education authorities across the country who buy the unit's ready-made questionnaires to investigate what is happening in their areas and assess what services need to be provided. More than 350,000 pupils have been questioned during that time.