Drugs and cigarettes? We're the teenagers who like to say no

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Today's youngsters are not the devil-may-care, ecstasy-popping, chain- smoking bunch that some would have us believe.

Parents panicked by alarmist media reports should take heart in the latest findings from the Schools Health Education Unit of Exeter University published today. The vast majority of the 22,067 pupils aged between12 and 15 surveyed said they had never touched drugs: more than 90 per cent of 12- and 13-year-olds and almost 70 per cent of 14- and 15-year-olds.

"We find it almost impossible to get across to journalists - or, at least, their editors - that most young people in school say they have never taken any drugs," said John Balding, director of the report, entitled Young People in 1996.

Both sexes ticked "the way you look" as their biggest worry, but girls were twice as worried about their appearance as boys. Family problems also emerged as an important cause for concern, with a quarter of boys and almost a half of girls worrying about their families. Drugs cause more concern than smoking, drinking or Aids.

More than half of the young people surveyed felt in control of their health, but more than 10 per cent did not. More than 70 per cent agreed with the statement "if I take care of myself I'll stay healthy", but around 15 per cent think that keeping their health is a matter of luck.

Despite an optimistic approach to control over their health, many youngsters are not paying it due heed. Information about their lifestyles suggested they are not really taking care of themselves: poor diet and lack of exercise were widespread - particularly among girls.

About one in seven girls aged 12 to 14 had eaten no lunch the previous day. As they grow older, an increasing number of girls also skip breakfast. By the time they reach 15, more than 30 per cent fall into this category.

Compared with 10 years ago, fewer girls participate in a sport. One-fifth of girls aged 13 to 15 had not participated in any sports outside school during the previous 12 months.

Fears that Britain is rearing a full-scale chemical generation were laid to rest by the authoritative survey, which is in its tenth year. Only 2 per cent of 12-and-13-year-olds said they had been offered or encouraged to try ecstasy, a figure which rose to 9 per cent for boys and 10 per cent for girls by the age of 14 and15. A substantial number of the offers seemed to have been refused. Only 2.9 per cent of girls and 3.8 per cent of boys aged 14 and 15 said they had ever taken ecstasy.

The notorious dance enhancer topped youngsters' "danger" ratings for drugs. When asked: "What do you know about ecstasy?", 78 per cent of 14- 15 year-olds said it was "always unsafe". The remaining 22 per cent did not necessarily believe it was safe: their answers were split between never having heard of the drug, knowing nothing about it, and believing it to be safe if "used properly".

Cannabis emerged as by far the most widely experienced drug. Almost 30 per cent of 14-and 15-year-olds had tried it at least once. This figure was more than double that of the 13- and 14-year-old age bracket - suggesting that contact with drugs accelerates around the age of 14. The perception that cannabis was unsafe diminished as teenagers grew older, confirming its unique status with many young people as an "acceptable" drug.

When it came to cigarettes, just over a quarter had smoked in the previous week. Of those between the ages of 12 and 15 who had done so, the average consumption was between one and five cigarettes.

Smoking among youngsters is on the increase and figures reached a new high in 1996. Last year, 24 per cent of boys and 31 per cent of girls were smoking by the age of 14 or 15, compared to 18 per cent of boys and 25 per cent of girls the year before. Again, 14 seemed to be the age at which they were most likely to start. Within the groups of smokers, at least two-thirds said they would like to stop.

The impact of alcopops, which did not exist two years ago, emerged from the survey. While beer or lager is the most widespread alcoholic beverage for boys aged between 12 and 14, and wine for girls, thereafter wine is nudged into second place by alcopops as a girl's favourite tipple. Almost half of 14- and 15-year olds had not had an alcoholic drink in the past week. Ten years ago there were more young drinkers, particularly boys, but fewer heavy drinkers.

In overall terms, more boys than girls appear to be satisfied with their lives, but only a fifth. Just a tenth of girls between the age of 12 and 15 said they were "very much" satisfied with their life. As many as 45 per cent of either sex are either dissatisfied or not sure.

The way they worry...

Top five concerns for boys and girls aged 14 and 15:

Boys Girls

1 The way you look (28.2%) The way you look (57.5%)

2 Family (27%) Family (45.8%)

3 Career (26.1%) Friends (42.5%)

4 Money (23.6%) Career (32.6%)

5 Unemployment (20.3%) School (30.4%)