A risky problem: what can keep young people away from alcohol and cigarettes?

Smoking and drinking among very young people has been declining in recent years, but it’s not all good news. There is still a lot of public health concern around the numbers of older children who are consuming alcohol and cigarettes, as these are the young people most likely to come to harm as a result of drinking too much. Their risky behaviours are also likely to persist and intensify into adulthood. So what factors might prevent a young person from smoking and drinking in the first place? New research published in BMC Public Health shows that levels of happiness among children and awareness of the risks may be key to success. Lead author on the research, Noriko Cable, explains more. 

According to Public Health England (PHE), alcohol is now the leading risk factor for ill-health, early mortality and disability among those aged 15 to 49 in England. It wants to “prevent and reduce” the harms caused by alcohol. It also has ambitions to create “a tobacco-free generation” by 2025.

The most recent figures from the Survey of Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use Among Young People in England show that around 90,000 children aged between 11 and 15 are regular smokers and 240,000 have drunk alcohol in the past week. These figures are the lowest they have been since the survey began in 1982.

However, recent research published in BMC Public Health by colleagues at UCL, shows that around one in seven 11 year-olds is drinking alcohol and that having peers who consume alcohol makes them four times more likely to drink that their peers who don’t. We also know that smokers start young, two thirds of them before the age of 18.

So we wanted to examine more closely the sorts of things that might drive young people away from cigarettes and alcohol. In this way we hope to arm policy makers, health practitioners and those working directly with or caring for children and young people with information that can help with the development of clear policies and interventions.

Protective role

We focused on three factors thought to play a protective role in preventing young people from starting to smoke and drink. These were: their awareness of the harms, their well-being or happiness and how supportive their networks of friends and family were.

Information came from Understanding Society, a large UK survey, which, in addition to collecting a wide range of social and economic information from everyone in the household aged 16 and over, has a special self-completion questionnaire for 10-15 year olds. Our sample contained 1,729 boys and girls.

We examined answers at two time points (approximately a year apart) to questions about their smoking and drinking. With these two sets of information, we were able to see whether they had started but then stopped smoking or drinking, whether they were persistent users of cigarettes and alcohol, whether they had started between the first and second surveys (initiation) or whether they had not smoked or drunk alcohol at either point.

The children were also asked about how happy they were with different aspects of their lives, including how they were getting on at school, how they felt about their appearance, family and friends and life in general.

On a scale of 1-4, the children were asked to rate how risky they thought different levels of smoking and drinking were. They were also asked how many supportive friends they had; friends they could confide in.

Harm awareness and happiness

Nearly 70 per cent of the study participants described themselves as persistent non-users of alcohol and cigarettes, and around 13 per cent categorized themselves as persistent users. Persistent non-users scored highest on harm awareness and happiness tests compared to the other groups.

About 8 per cent of the study group labelled themselves as ex-users and about 13 per cent had started using alcohol or cigarettes between the first and second time they completed the survey. Young people aged 10 to 12 were more likely to be in the persistent non-use group, whereas participants aged 13 and above were more likely to be in the persistent user and initiation groups.

We were surprised that while, for most young people, knowledge of the potential and actual harms of alcohol and smoking was linked with them never drinking or smoking, for some it seemed to be associated with them starting to drink or smoke. It is possible that positive expectations from drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes may, in some way, have overridden their awareness of what harm they could do.

The happier the young person was, and more aware of the harms of alcohol and cigarettes, the more likely they were never to drink or smoke. Having supportive friends to confide in did not play a role in preventing adolescents from using alcohol or cigarettes.

Promoting happiness and harms

So it seems that promoting young people’s happiness and well-being and making them aware of the harms of smoking and drinking may be key to keeping them away from alcohol and cigarettes. In terms of possible timings for information and interventions, another takeaway from the study might be that working with children between the ages of 10 and 12, before they start trying cigarettes and alcohol, could be important.

Because the information used in this study is self-reported, we need to interpret the findings with caution, but they do suggest that making adolescents aware of alcohol and smoking related harm can be helpful in preventing them from engaging in risky health behaviors.

Colleagues at the Centre are now getting to grips with the new age 14 data from the Millennium Cohort Study and, in collaboration with Mentor, a charity working on the ground in schools to tackle alcohol and drug abuse, are hoping to develop our growing body of evidence in this area that will help formulate policies and activities to make some of Public Health England’s ambitions around smoking and alcohol a reality.

Further information

What could keep young people away from alcohol and cigarettes? Findings from the UK Household Longitudinal Study is research by Noriko Cable, Maria Francisca Roman Mella and Yvonne Kelly and is published in BMC Public Health.