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Increase in alcohol, tobacco and cannabis use among Irish school children

A cross-European survey has found an increase in alcohol use, heavy episodic or binge drinking, smoking and cannabis use among Irish school children.

The report found almost a third of Irish school children had tried smoking, almost 40 per cent had sampled e-cigarettes while 41 per cent had used alcohol in the last 30 days – up from 36 per cent in 2015.

The European Schools Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD) report, a survey on substance use among students aged 15 and 16 years across 39 countries, is carried out every four years.

The Irish-arm of the study includes data from 1,949 Irish students who were born in 2003 across 50 secondary schools, and was conducted by the TobaccoFree Research Institute Ireland on behalf of the Department of Health.

Among the key findings of the 2019 report were the following:

  • Smoking: 32 per cent of respondents had tried smoking and 14 per cent were current smokers (reported smoking in the last 30 days), with 5 per cent smoking daily.
  • E-cigarettes: 39 per cent reported having ever used an e-cigarette; 16 per cent reported using one in the last 30 days.
  • Alcohol: 41 per cent used alcohol in the last 30 days, an increase from 36 per cent in 2015. 32 per cent reported being drunk in the previous 12 months while 16 per cent reported being drunk in the previous 30 days.
  • Drug use: Cannabis was reported as the most used drug, with 19.1 per cent of respondents having tried it. Inhalants were the second most commonly used substance (10% ever-use), with students also reporting use of painkillers (5%), alcohol with pills (4%), cocaine (3%) and ecstasy (3%).

Minister of State with Responsibility for the National Drugs Strategy, Frank Feighan, expressed concern at the report’s findings.

“It is a stark reality that one in every two children that try smoking tobacco products will eventually become a smoker. As we are aware, one in every two smokers will die early of a tobacco-related disease,” he said.

“We need to emphasise strongly to our children and their parents that smoking leads to so many unnecessary and tragic losses of life.”

Since 1995 the ESPAD survey results have tracked a decreasing trend in alcohol use and binge drinking in this underage group

The Minister said with evidence reviews on e-cigarettes from the Health Research Board showing their use by adolescents was associated with an increased likelihood of smoking, legislation was in development to prohibit the sale of nicotine inhaling products to those under 18.

Minister Feighan said the findings on alcohol use were also concerning.

“Since 1995 the ESPAD survey results have tracked a decreasing trend in alcohol use and binge drinking in this underage group, but the 2019 figures are now showing an increase from 2015,” he said.

The Minister said the Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018 hoped to delay alcohol consumption among young people, with mixed retail outlets required to separate alcohol from other products and reduce its visibility.

He added that additional funding had been made available as part of Budget 2021 for the expansion of the HSE Drugs and Alcohol Helpline.