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Sharp decline in youth drinking, new report shows

  • The number of 11-15 year-olds who have ever had a full alcoholic drink fell from 61 per cent in 2002 to 44 per cent in 2016.
  • The proportion of 16-17 year-olds binge drinking within the last week fell from 30 per cent in 2002 to six per cent in 2016.
  • The average age of first alcoholic drink for 11-15 year-olds also increased from 11.6 in 2002 to 12.3 in 2016.
  • The proportion of people smoking fell from 38 per cent in 2002 to 17 per cent in 2016 and the proportion of people using cannabis fell from 17 per cent in 2002 to 11 per cent in 2016.

A new report shows a sharp decline in youth drinking across all age groups over the last 15 years. Young people are now less likely to drink and, if they do drink, they start doing so later, drink less often and consume smaller amounts.

The report, published by the University of Sheffield’s Alcohol Research Group, is part of a new project funded by the Wellcome Trust to examine and explain the decline in youth drinking.

It analysed data from the 1988-2016 Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use amongst Young People in England surveys and the 2001-2016 Health Surveys for England.  Both are nationally-representative surveys of young people in England and cover respondents aged between eight and 24.

Commenting on the report, Vanessa Hebditch, from the British Liver Trust said,

“The fact that young people overall are drinking less is excellent news. Hopefully, this will mean fewer deaths from alcohol-related liver disease in the future. However, whilst the overall trend is positive, we mustn’t forget that there are still significant numbers of young people who do drink at dangerous levels.  We still need to put levers in place to address this through taxation, introducing stronger controls on alcohol advertising and marketing and improving awareness.”

The report shows that in 2002, 61 per cent of 11-15 year-olds had previously consumed a full alcoholic drink but this dropped to 44 per cent by 2016. For 8-12 year-olds, this fell from 25 per cent to just four percent.

The proportion of 16-17 year-olds who reported drinking alcohol over the past 12 months fell from 88 per cent in 2001 to 65 per cent in 2016, while over the same time period, the proportion of 16-24 year-old drinkers fell from 90 per cent to 78 per cent.

Those young people who do drink are starting drinking up to a year later.  Between 2002 and 2016, the average age at which 16-17 year-olds reported having their first alcoholic drink increased from 13.7 to 14.8, while for 11-15 year-olds it increased from 11.6 to 12.3.

The research showed there were also big falls in how often and how much young people drink.

Among those who were drinkers, the percentage of 16-24 year-olds who drank in the last week fell from 76 per cent to 60 per cent between 2002 and 2016, while for 11-15 year-olds it fell from 35 per cent to 19 per cent.

The proportion of 16-17 year-olds who exceeded binge drinking thresholds in the last week fell from 30 per cent in 2002 to six per cent in 2016.

Dr Melissa Oldham, lead author of the report from the University of Sheffield’s Alcohol Research Group, said: “It may be that increases in internet use and online gaming are changing the way young people spend their leisure time.

“Economic factors may also play a role, as concern about increasing university tuition fees and the cost of housing means young people feel they have less disposable income to spend on alcohol.”

As well as a decline in alcohol use, smoking and illicit drug use has also decreased amongst 11-15 year-olds.

The proportion of people smoking fell from 38 per cent in 2002 to 17 per cent in 2016 and the proportion of people using cannabis fell from 17 per cent in 2002 to 11 per cent in 2016.

Dr John Holmes, who leads the University of Sheffield's study of the decline in youth drinking, said: "These changes matter for public health today as young people suffer injuries, poor mental health and road traffic accidents when intoxicated.

“If this generation also drinks less in later adulthood, we may see big reductions in 20 or 30 years in the diseases caused by alcohol."

The Sheffield Alcohol Research Group is based at the University of Sheffield’s School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR). Formed in 1992, ScHARR is one of the largest and most dynamic schools of health research within the UK.  The School tackles some of the world’s biggest health challenges to improve the health and care of people in the UK and around the world.

You can read the full report: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/Youth drinking in decline

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