The latest data from across Europe, Central Asia and Canada, from the new Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study, paints a concerning picture of adolescent substance use in the UK and beyond. The report is based on data from 2021-22, from nearly 280,000 adolescent boys and girls.

The WHO-commissioned report found that more than half of 15-year-olds in Europe had experimented with alcohol, while a shocking 1 in 5 had recently used e-cigarettes. In the UK, recent declines in smoking over the last few decades had stalled, and there was evidence of a small increase in alcohol use among 15-year-old girls in England since 2018. In addition, the study highlights particular risks for older girls around vaping and alcohol use, emphasising the need for targeted prevention strategies.

Major findings of the report include:

Prevalence of alcohol consumption

Alcohol is the most common substance used among adolescents, with the report finding, that among 15 year-olds in the UK, over half of girls and around two-fifths of boys had drunk alcohol in the past 30 days. England had the highest rates of lifetime alcohol use among 11 and 13 year-olds. Compared with other European countries, rates of drunkenness in the UK were high, particularly among girls.

Tobacco use

While smoking rates have decreased in recent years, more than one in five 15 year-old girls have smoked a cigarettes in their lifetime and more than one in ten had done so in the last 30 days. Smoking prevalence is higher among girls than boys in England and Wales.

E-cigarette use

Vaping rates are concerning and have now overtaken rates of cigarette smoking. Almost one in ten 11 year-olds in England have used an e-cigarette at least once. By age 15, this increases to 26% of boys and 40% of girls. Prevalence of vaping among 15 year-old girls is above the HBSC average in England, Scotland and Wales.

Cannabis use trends

Cannabis use in the UK is above the HBSC average; almost one in five 15 year-olds report having used cannabis at least once in their lifetime (HBSC average = 12%). In Scotland, lifetime use has declined over the past 20 years, but current use has remained relatively stable, suggesting little improvement among more regular users. Boys in Scotland have the highest rate of lifetime cannabis use among all HBSC countries.

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