Alcohol, e-cigarettes, cannabis: What can be done to curb substance use among teenagers?

Alcohol, e-cigarettes, cannabis: What can be done to curb substance use among teenagers?
Alcohol, e-cigarettes, cannabis: What can be done to curb substance use among teenagers? Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By Oceane Duboust
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Experts warned that the widespread use of harmful substances among teenagers in Europe was a serious public health threat.


More than half of 15-year-old teens have tried alcohol at least once and one in four has smoked a cigarette, new data from the World Health Organization (WHO) shows.

Moreover, one in five has smoked an e-cigarette in the past 30 days, according to a survey of nearly 280,000 teenagers, both male and female in Europe, Central Asia and Canada.

The Health Behaviour in School-aged Children Study (HBSC) is administered in schools every four years.

“The widespread use of harmful substances among children in many countries across the European Region - and beyond - is a serious public health threat,” Dr Hans Kluge, WHO’s regional director for Europe, said in a statement.

“Considering that the brain continues to develop well into a person’s mid-20s, adolescents need to be protected from the effects of toxic and dangerous products,” he added, pointing out that “targeted online marketing of harmful products” normalises them.

The study highlighted that e-cigarette use has increased globally, but that there was a notable trend among teenagers “in no small part due to their exposure to online environments”.

The country with the highest percentage of teenagers that had tried an e-cigarette at least once in their lifetime was Lithuania, where some 60 per cent of teenagers aged 15 had smoked an e-cigarette.

The rise in e-cigarette use among young people has prompted several countries to crack down on vaping, especially single-use vapes, with the UK banning them in January.

Despite this rise in vaping, the most-used substance among teens aged 11, 13, and 15 was alcohol, the study found, with 57 per cent of 15-years-olds having tried it once and nearly 40 per cent saying that they consumed some in the month before the survey.

“Despite declines in the use of substances (such as alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking) in recent years, some data suggest that [COVID-19] pandemic may have caused a new increase in use,” the report said.

Gender gap is shrinking

Historically, there has been more substance abuse among boys, and the survey did show a higher prevalence of using alcohol and smoking among 11-year-old boys compared to girls of the same age.

However, by the age of 13, gender differences had decreased or vanished entirely in several countries and regions for alcohol consumption and drunkenness.

Among 15-year-olds, it's common for girls to report more frequent substance use than boys in a pattern described by the authors of the report as “similar to what has happened with cigarette smoking over the past two decades”.

Cannabis consumption was an exception however with more teenage boys using it than girls.

What can be done to mitigate the risks?

Increasing the taxes on products such as tobacco, alcohol and e-cigarettes is one of the recommendations of the report’s authors.

Another suggested measure is to limit the availability of substances through reduced hours or locations of sale and by enforcing age limits on products.

In Europe, the most concrete examples of this type of policy are in Finland, Sweden and Norway which all have a state monopoly on alcoholic beverages beyond a certain percentage.


The WHO also recommends a ban on all flavouring agents in tobacco products and any kind of advertising.

Just delaying the age of alcohol consumption could be beneficial as studies showed the earlier drinking starts, the higher the likelihood of alcohol misuse in adulthood is.

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