Underage drinking doubles in a decade

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The Independent Online

Teenagers are drinking twice as much alcohol as they did 10 years ago and nearly one in three 15-year-olds admits to smoking cannabis, a national survey by the Department of Health has found.

Despite a campaign by ministers to cut smoking, drinking and drug abuse among young people, a survey of 7,000 secondary school pupils revealed big increases in all three habits.

Most worrying for the researchers was a doubling of the amount of alcohol that children aged between 11 and 15 regularly consume.

Among those who had drunk alcohol in the past seven days, the average consumption was 10.4 units a week, or the equivalent of five pints of beer. That compared with just 5.3 units in 1990.

Cannabis is by far the most commonly used drug, with 28 per cent of 15-year-olds and 17 per cent of 14-year-olds having smoked it in the past year. Across all age groups, 12 per cent of pupils said they had used cannabis, 2 per cent more than admitted to it in a similar study in 1998.

One in 10 youngsters regularly smoked more than one cigarette a week, an increase on last year's figures, which had indicated that teenage smoking could be on the decline. Young girls are more likely to be regular smokers, with 12 per cent admitting to the habit compared with 9 per cent of boys.

The Department of Health expressed concern at some of the figures, although officials stressed that the use of hardcore drugs such as cocaine and heroin remained low.

But cancer and alcohol abuse charities said more had to be done to spell out the dangers of smoking drinking and drugs.

Alcohol Concern said: "The latest figures confirm the worrying trend of other studies indicating that young people are drinking more – and more frequently."

Sir Paul Nurse, director general of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, added: "These statistics are very worrying. Young people's smoking rates have been falling since 1996 and it would be tragic if we were seeing the beginning of a reversal in this trend. The Government's own figures illustrate the potential for an increase in cancer deaths, as more kids take up smoking."

The survey was done by the National Centre for Social Research and the National Foundation for Educational Research in 225 schools across the country last autumn.

It showed that 5 per cent of 11-year-olds and 49 per cent of those aged 15 had drunk alcohol in the previous week.

The amount consumed rose as teenagers grew older, with boys of 15 drinking an average of 14.5 units a week compared with an average of 8.3 units consumed by those aged 11 to 13. Among girls who drink alcohol, consumption rose from 4.6 units at age 11, to 11.2 units by the time they are 15.

Richard Boreham, a senior researcher at NCSR, said the introduction of alcopops in 1995 appeared to have contributed to an increase in the volume of alcohol teenagers consumed, but not in the proportion who drank.

Drug use has also increased among teenagers in the past year, with 14 per cent having tried drugs in the past year compared with 11 per cent in 1998. Older children were much more likely to have tried drugs. But only 1 per cent of those aged 11 to 15 had tried heroin, while 4 per cent had used stimulants including cocaine, crack and ecstasy.