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Youngsters turn their backs on tobacco, alcohol and cannabis

Figures from Consortium Tabak - the ‘Tobacco Consortium’ in which several anti-smoking organisations have joined forces - show fewer and fewer 12-to-18-year-olds are smoking tobacco, drinking alcohol or using cannabis. 

Every year the consortium launches a large-scale survey involving over 7,500 secondary school pupils to find out more about drug use at secondary school. However, the last survey dates from the 2018-19 schoolyear as a result of the disruption caused by the pandemic. 

The new study covering 2021-2022 shows 17.8% of youngsters using tobacco during the past year.  The figure is down from 19% three years ago.  21.1% of the youngsters say they have smoked a cigarette at some point – down from 22.7% in the previous survey. The average age at which youngsters start smoking has also risen from 14.1 years to 15.1 years.

The results are encouraging from a health perspective but the consortium believes the fall isn’t proceeding rapidly enough.  In recent years the pace of the fall has decreased.  Moreover, the number of youngsters that smoked in the past year fell among older pupils but rose among younger ones.

Fewer and fewer youngsters are drinking alcohol too: 53.5% have drunk alcohol at some time, down from two-thirds a decade ago.

However, there’s been an increase in the number of pupils drinking alcohol on a weekly basis.  “It’s disturbing” says Katleen Peleman of the Flemish centre of expertise for drugs, the VAD.  “A few years ago only 10% of pupils indicated they drank every week.  Today the figure is 14%.  This is a group of youngsters bucking the trend and not getting our message”.

Cannabis use too is falling.  Fewer than 10% of youngsters have smoked a joint at some point, a figure not seen since 2000.

There’s a suspicion that that corona restrictions may have played a role as smoking a joint is something young people like to do in company or out on the town.  The consortium hasn’t noticed any compensatory move towards illegal drugs like XTC or cocaine.  Even an increase in laughing gas use doesn’t compensate for the drop in cannabis use.

The consortium is worried about use of sedatives and sleeping pills that has risen to 16%.  One in five girls is now taking prescription sedatives or sleeping pills.

The consortium believes prevention is the answer.  Measures to deter smoking are urgently needed: fewer e-cigarette sales points, higher cigarette prices and more checks on sales to youngsters.

The consortium urges action with regard to e-cigarettes: youngsters need to be discouraged from starting to vape, but at the same time vaping is seen as one of the six recognised methods to help stop smoking.  A clear vision on the sale of e-cigarettes is needed says the consortium.

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