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Are we really witnessing the rise of “Generation Sensible”?

Posted on 09 November 2017 by Elizabeth Fuller, Research Director .
Tags: children smoking, drugs, smoking drinking and drug use

Last week saw the release of the latest survey of smoking, drinking and drug use (SDD) among young people in England. The headlines have been extensively reported.

The broad picture remains similar to the most recent survey in the series, carried out in 2014. 11 to 15 year-olds in 2016 are much less likely to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol or take illegal drugs than they were a decade ago. This adds further fuel to a growing media narrative; the rise of ‘generation sensible”. But in 2016 the story is more nuanced than that. Here are some things that caught my eye.

Smoking and vaping

It looks like the decline in cigarette smoking may have bottomed out, with very little change between 2014 and 2016.

We are, however, seeing e-cigarettes making their presence felt. There’s been an increase from 22% to 25% of respondents who have tried e-cigarettes, and a jump from 4% to 6% who say they currently vape.

This means that more under-16s have tried vaping than smoking – 25% vs. 19%. The proportion of current e-cigarette users, 6%, is the same as the proportion of current smokers.

As could be expected, e-cigarettes are most attractive to children who also smoke cigarettes. But the increase in use is found among all groups, whether or not they have ever smoked.

Overall, it seems that legislation and pricing have made cigarettes fairly inaccessible to under 18s, and so vaping has become a cheap and fairly unregulated alternative.


Drinking alcohol

This time around, the survey used a new question to measure alcohol use, which means that findings are not comparable with previous years. However, by either measure, under-16s are less likely to drink alcohol than at any time since the mid-2000s.

Unlike smoking, vaping or drug use, drinking alcohol is almost a mainstream activity for this age group, as it is in the adult world. By the age of 15, 73% of teenagers have tried alcohol and almost a quarter of 15 year olds will have had an alcoholic drink in the last week.

Drug use

One new thing that the survey did this year was to include new psychoactive substances and nitrous oxide in the headline estimates. Surveys like SDD can have a hard time keeping up with the changes in the recreational drugs market, so this is a welcome development.

Although cannabis is still the most widely used drug, nitrous oxide – also known as laughing gas – was inhaled by 4.0% of under 16s in the last year, ahead of every other drug covered by the survey, apart from glue, gas and other volatile substances.

As with e-cigarettes, this is likely to be encouraged by easy availability. Nitrous oxide is a widely used club drug, with semi-legal status (the canisters are used in whipped cream aerosols) and has a relatively benign reputation.

The headline findings on illicit drugs are quite surprising, and seem to indicate a return to levels of use not seen since the mid-2000s. This isn’t immediately explicable and may be a freak result. Certainly it is out of line with data from other sources.

In conclusion

Sadly, the SDD is now carried out every two years instead of annually, so it’s another long wait to find out whether 2016 marked a significant change in young people’s behaviour. But in the meantime, there’s plenty of interesting detail to explore further.

For survey geeks there are some interesting methodological considerations to explore, and for everyone else, there are wider questions about what affects these rates, and, in particular, how much friends and family influence this age group.



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