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National Statistics
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Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use among Young People in England 2018 [NS]

This is part of

National statistics
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Geographic coverage:
England
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Regions
Date range:
01 Jan 2018 to 31 Dec 2018

Part 8: Drug use prevalence and consumption

Evidence has demonstrated immediate and long term risks to young people’s health and wellbeing associated with the use of legal and illegal drugs. These risks vary with the type of drug taken.

There are particular concerns about the relationship between drug use and mental health problems among young people. For example, there is evidence to suggest that young people who use recreational drugs run the risk of damage to mental health including suicide, depression, psychotic symptoms and disruptive behaviour disorders1,2. Addressing the use of drugs, particularly amongst young people, has long been a focus of government policy due to the awareness and concern over the harms described above.

This part covers the prevalence of drug use, factors associated with drug use in the last year, and the availability and awareness of drugs.

The questionnaire covered the following drugs or types of drugs: amphetamines, cannabis, cocaine, crack, ecstasy, heroin, ketamine, LSD, magic mushrooms, mephedrone, methadone, poppers (e.g. amyl nitrite), tranquillisers, volatile substances such as gas, glue, aerosols and other solvents, new psychoactive substances (NPS), nitrous oxide and ‘other’ drugs (not obtained from a doctor or chemist).

Increase in drug prevalence since 2016

The following changes/issues have effected the drug prevalence measures reported in this part: ever taken drugs, taken drugs in the last year and taken drugs in the last month (tables 8.1 to 8.8):

  • NPS (previously known as legal highs), and nitrous oxide (laughing gas) were added to the list of drugs included for overall drug prevalence measures in 2016. Both are covered by the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 which restricts the production and sale and supply of such substances. When psychoactive substances are removed from the 2016 measure, the overall drug prevalence figure falls by 3 percentage points (24.3% to 21.3%). This adjusted version is shown in the time series data in tables 8.6 to 8.8.
  • In 2016, even when accounting for the addition of NPS to the measures, there was a large and unexpected rise in overall drug use prevalence; 14.6% in 2014, to 24.3% in 2016 and 23.7% 2018. Further investigations identified that some of this change was driven by an increased likelihood of pupils not answering questions on whether they had tried individual drugs. Neither the reason for this, nor exactly how much of the change in prevalence this accounts for is clear, though some level of genuine increase is evident.

All drug prevalence measures presented in this report are directly comparable between 2016 and 2018. However, for the reasons outlined above, it is not recommended that direct comparisons are made with drug prevalence data prior to 2016. See the Data Quality Statement (Coherence and comparability) for further details.

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1. British Medical Association, Board of Science and Education, London (2003): Adolescent Health,

2. Patton G et al (2002): Cannabis use and mental health in young people: cohort study. 

 

Pupils who have ever taken drugs

Pupils who have ever taken drugs, by year

In 2018, 24% (confidence interval 22-25%) of pupils reported they had ever taken drugs, the same as in 2016.  

Chart showing the proportion of pupils who had ever taken drugs by year

 

Pupils who have ever taken drugs, by sex and age

25% of boys and 22% of girls had ever taken drugs. This difference was not statistically significant. 

The likelihood of having ever taken drugs increased with age, from 9% of 11 year olds to 38% of 15 year olds.

Chart showing the proportion of pupils who had ever taken drugs by age

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For more data relating to this section:

 

 

Pupils who have taken drugs in the last year

Pupils who have taken drugs in the last year, by year

17% (confidence interval 16-18%) of pupils said that they had taken drugs in the last year, compared to 18% in 2016 (not a statistically significant difference). 

Chart showing the proportion of pupils who had taken drugs in the last year by year

 

Pupils who have taken drugs in the last year, by sex and age

In 2018, 18% of boys and 16% of girls had ever taken drugs. This diference was not statistically significant. 

The likelihood of having taken drugs in the last year increased with age, from 5% of 11 year olds to 31% of 15 year olds.

Chart showing the proportion of pupils who had taken drugs in the last year by age

 

Pupils who have taken drugs in the last year, by ethnicity

Asian pupils were less likely than other ethnic groups to have taken drugs in the last year; 13%, compared to 23% of mixed ethnicity pupils, 18% of Black pupils, and 17% of White pupils.

Chart showing the proportion of pupils who had taken drugs in the last year by ethnicity

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For more data relating to this section:

 

 

Pupils who have taken drugs in the last month

Pupils who have taken drugs in the last month, by year

In 2018, 9% (confidence interval 9-10%) of pupils said that they had taken drugs in the last month, which is similar to 2016 (10%).

Chart showing the proportion of pupils who had taken drugs in the last month by year

 

Pupils who have taken drugs in the last month, by sex and age

Boys were more likely to have taken drugs in the last month (11%) than girls (8%).

Image showing the proportion of pupils who had taken drugs in the last month by sex

 

The likelihood of having taken drugs in the last month increased with age, from 2% of 11 year olds to 19% of 15 year olds.

Chart showing the proportion of pupils who had taken drugs in the last month by sex

 

Factors associated with taking drugs in the last month

A logistic regression model was used to explore which characteristics might be associated with having taken drugs in the last month. This identifies associations, not causes; in other words, factors which identify pupils with an increased or decreased likelihood of having taken drugs in the last month. See Appendix B for more information on the regression model used.

The 9 factors (explanatory variables) shown below had a significant association with having taken drugs in the last month. The size of the circles represents an estimate of the relative contribution to the model (table 8.10 shows the odds ratios for each possible value of each variable in the model).

It was estimated that being a smoker had the strongest association, followed by drinking, and then by having a family who don't discourage drug use. 

Image showing the factors that were associated with taking drugs in the last month

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For more data relating to this section:

 

 

Whether pupils have ever been offered drugs

Pupils who had ever been offered any drugs, by age

In 2018, 38% of the pupils reported that they had been offered at least one of the drugs asked about.

Older pupils were more likely to have ever been offered drugs (increasing from 16% of 11 year olds to 59% of 15 year olds). This difference is likely to reflect accumulated experience, as well as the genuinely increased probability that older pupils will be offered drugs

Chart showing proportion of pupils who had ever been offered drugs by age

 

Pupils who had ever been offered drugs, by type

For this question, pupils were able to state more than one drug type.  The chart below shows only the most common responses. For the full list see data table 8.23. 

Pupils were most likely to have been offered cannabis (22%). 11% and 6% of pupils respectively said they'd been offered nitrous oxide and new psychoactive substances. 

Chart showing proportion of pupils who had ever been offered drugs by type

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For more data relating to this section:

 

 

Types of drug taken

Drug types taken in last year, by year

For this question, pupils were able to state more than one drug type.  The chart below shows only the most common responses. For the full list see data table 8.6. 

Cannabis is the drug that pupils are most likely to have taken in the last year, with 8% saying they had done so in 2018; the same as in 2016 but below the 13% reported in 2001.

The proportion saying they had taken volatile substances has been around 3% to 4% since 2010, and class A drug use around 2% to 3% across the same period.

For nitrous oxide and new psychoactive substances (included in the drug prevalence measure for the first time in 2016), 4% and 1% of pupils respectively said that they had taken them in the last year.

Chart showing types of drugs taken in the last year by year

 

Number of drugs and type of drug taken in the last year

This analysis was based only on pupils who had taken drugs in the last year.

Among those pupils who reported any drug use in the last year, around two thirds (65%) took only one type of drug.

Those who took only one type of drug included 30% who took cannabis only, and 18% who took volatile substances only.

35% reported taking two or more types of drug, including 18% who had taken at least one class A drug.

Chart showing number and types of drugs taken in the last year

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For more data relating to this section:

 

 

Early experience of drug taking

This analysis was based only on pupils who had ever taken drugs. It does not only represent the first occasion a pupil used drugs, but also any other drug  type used at that age i.e. it represents early drug use rather than first drug use.  Pupils were able to state more than one drug type.

Drugs taken at age of first drug use

Pupils’ early experience of drug use was most likely to involve cannabis (42%) or volatile substances (40%).  7% took a class A drug at the age of first drug use.

The chart below shows only the most common responses (for the full list see data table 8.30). 

Chart showing most common drug types taken at first drug use

 

Drugs taken at age of first drug use, by age first took drugs

Pupils who tried drugs at an earlier age were more likely to report using volatile substances at that age, whilst pupils who first took drugs at an older age were more likely to report taking cannabis.

Chart showing most common drug types taken at first drug use, by age first took drugs

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For more data relating to this section:

 

 

Comparison of estimates of drug use prevalence with other data sources

To recap in SDD 2018, 24% of pupils reported they had ever taken drugs, 18% said they had done so in the last year, and 9% in the last month.

The Crime Survey for England and Wales provides information on drug use for adults aged 16 or over.  In 2017/18, 35% of 16 to 24 year olds repored having ever used used drugs, similar to the previous two years, but with a downward trend compared with ten years ago.

Estimates for Scotland are available from the Scottish Schools Adolescent Lifestyle and Substance Use Survey (SALSUS) which covers 13 and 15 year olds. It reports that drug use in the last month has been gradually decreasing since 2002, though for 15 year old boys there had been a small increase between 2013 and 2015. In 2015, drug use in the last month was reported at 3% for 13 year olds and 11% for 15 year olds. Results from the 2018 survey were not available at the time of this publication.

Estimates from Wales are available from the Welsh government Student Health and Well-being Survey, which covers children in years 7 to 11. In 2017/18 the survey reported that 15% of children surveyed had ever used drugs. This is based on responses to use of the six most frequently cited drugs.

Results from the National Drug Treatment Monitoring System (NDTMS) reported that there were 15,583 young people (under 18's) in specialist substance misuse services in 2017 to 2018. This was a 5% decrease from 2016 to 2017 (16,436) and a continuation of a longer term downward trend. 

Last edited: 14 August 2019 8:45 am