Teenage trends: Less alcohol, tobacco and drugs; more e-cigarettes and medication

Teenage trends: Less alcohol, tobacco and drugs; more e-cigarettes and medication
A man smoking a joint in a coffee shop in Maastricht. Credit: Belga / Michel Krakowski

Alcohol consumption among teenagers is falling significantly, as is their use of tobacco and (soft) drugs, an annual survey by the Flemish Alcohol and other Drugs (VAD) expertise centre reveals. Cannabis use has never been as low as the last academic year, but experts have concerns about other trends.

The use of tobacco, alcohol and cannabis among young people is declining: 17.8% of teenagers between 12 and 18 indicated that they used tobacco in the last year, almost 20% less than three years ago (before Covid-19).

Teenagers are also starting to smoke later, with the average age rising from 14.1 years to 15.1 years in the last decade. Still, the centre stressed that measures to discourage smoking – such as more prevention for specific groups, raising the cost of cigarettes and tightening controls on sales to minors – remain necessary.

On the other hand, e-cigarettes are growing in popularity: 19% of those surveyed indicated that they have used them in the past year and 5% do so regularly. The increase may be due to the rise in disposable models. The VAD proposes a ban on them or higher excise duties.

Generation health?

"The fact that vaping is on the rise among young people is preventing smoking habits from decreasing fast enough. We are facing a major social challenge," the VAD said. "A clearer vision on the sale of e-cigarettes is needed."

Alcohol consumption among young people also dropped considerably: 48.6% of young people drank alcohol in the past year, compared to 63.3% ten years ago. However, there is also a negative evolution: in 2021-2022, 14.3% drank at least once a week, an increase of 2.1% compared to before Covid-19.

The number of young people who were drunk in the last year (25%) was also slightly higher than three years ago (23%), and 3.5% were drunk at least once a week, compared to 2.3% before. The number of young people who are drunk "regularly" has increased across all ages, for both boys and girls.

Cannabis use has fallen sharply over the last year: less than 10% of students have ever used cannabis – the lowest figure since 2000. Additionally, there is no shift to other drugs such as XTC or cocaine, and the use of laughing gas also remains limited: 1.7% of the students used it last year.

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"The survey shows that gaming and cannabis use are decreasing among young people. But we are also not blind to the less good things, such as the increase in the use of e-cigarettes," said Flemish Welfare Minister Hilde Crevits, stressing the importance of prevention.

The figures for sleeping pills and tranquillizers did go up: 16.4% of young people used them at some point compared to 12.7% ten years ago. This increase is particularly noticeable among girls: in 2021-2022, 20.8% had already taken sleeping pills or tranquillizers at some point.

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