Teenagers' drug abuse 'becoming endemic problem'

Three-quarters of all 16-year- olds know at least one person who takes illegal drugs, the biggest-ever survey of young peoples' lifestyles has revealed. By next year, the figure will have risen to more than eight out of 10.

The evidence from the Schools Health Education Unit at the University of Exeter brings confirmation of mounting fears that drug abuse among teenagers is becoming endemic.

Questionnaires filled in by up to 40,000 young people each year for the past 12 years have recently found increasing numbers admitting to drug abuse or to knowing someone who takes illegal drugs. Now John Balding, director of the unit, has projected the figures for 1991 and 1993 forwards to give predictions for 1995.

He believes that by next year, the number of 16 year-old boys abusing drugs will be four times greater than the number who were doing so in 1988. Almost half of all 16-year-old boys will have tried an illegal substance, he says.

The figures are based on questionnaires devised by the unit and given to young people by health authorities. They suggest that the Government's anti-drugs initiative may not be able to stem the tide of abuse.

A pounds 5m advertising campaign will stress the dangers of drugs and will be backed up by 100 local drug action teams. But experts fear the rising tide of abuse may be impossible to stem. A drugs adviser warned last night that the picture could be much worse in some parts of the country and that it reflected a problem causing concern across Europe. Other countries were increasingly worried about the use of drugs by younger children, he said.

In 1989, one 16-year-old boy in 10 had tried an illegal drug. By 1993 this rose to more than one in three and by next year it is expected to rise to 46 per cent. Among girls of the same age the figures rose from 9 per cent in 1989 to 28 per cent in 1993 and were predicted to be almost 35 per cent by 1995.

One 11-year-old in five is expected to have tried illegal drugs by 1995, compared with fewer than one in 10 in 1989.

The most commonly used drug is cannabis leaf. While only 5 per cent of 16-year-old boys had tried it in 1989, 28 per cent had done so in 1993 and 49 per cent were expected to have done so by 1995. The drugs whose use was rising most rapidly were amphetamines and cannabis, while solvent abuse was less common and seemed to be dropping.

Three-quarters of all 16- year-olds and almost one in five 11-year-olds say they know someone who takes drugs. John Balding believes that the figure for older children will have risen to almost nine out of ten by next year.

Peter Walker, headmaster of the Abbey School, in Faversham, Kent, and a member of the Government Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs, said the problem was growing rapidly all over Europe.

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