Fewer school children are smoking or taking drugs, but vaping use among 11 to 15-year-olds is increasing, a study from NHS Digital finds

In 2021, 9% of school children aged 11 to 15 years old report vaping on a regular or occasional basis. This comes at an increase of 6% since 2018.

Which children are vaping?

The report found that 1 in 5 UK 15-year-old girls vape and 18% of all 15-year-olds are current e-cigarette users.

Statistics revealed that 23% of children who met people outside of school or the home every day were vaping, compared to 1% of those who didn’t venture out socially.

In the UK, the number of people considered regular smokers and e-cigarette users more than doubled, from 29% of regular smokers in 2018 to 61% in 2021.

‘I wake up with a tight chest every morning’

Priscilla, a source for Open Access Government, explained that she first started vaping at 15 years old and like many other children, has been addicted ever since. Now at 21 years old, she comments on her symptoms:

“I can feel it on my chest and I wake up with a tight chest every morning. Previously, I only used my inhaler for my allergies but now I need to use it every day.

“I regret starting vaping at school. I know I need to quit but it’s hard.”

Only 3% of British school children smoke cigarettes

The Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use among Young People in England, 2021 report found that cigarette use has decreased by 5% since 2018.

The lowest level ever recorded

In 2021, only 3% of students smoked. In addition, only 12% reported having ever smoked, a decrease from 16% in 2018, and the lowest level ever recorded.

The report focuses on smoking, drinking and drug use and contains results from a biennial survey of secondary school pupils in England years 7-11 (mostly aged 11-15).

In 2021, 18% of school children had taken drugs

According to this survey, fewer young people are taking drugs. 18% of pupils reported having ever taken drugs, a decline from 24% in 2018 and in the last year, 12% of pupils said they had taken drugs, down from 17% in 2018.

Cannabis is the most popular drug amongst school children

6% of children said they had taken cannabis in 2021, down from 8% in 2018.

In terms of class A drugs, use amongst children has remained at around 2-3% since 2010.

Of those who reported taking drugs on more than one occasion, 19% said they took drugs alone on the most recent occasion, up from 11% in 2018, and 7% in 2016.

Alcohol use has not changed since 2018

6% of pupils aged 11 to 15 years old said they usually drank alcohol at least once a week. This figure has not changed since 2018.

Among those who reported drinking, 6% said they usually drank alone, an increase from 3% in 2018.

Group of teenagers socialising, looking on their phones
© Ian Allenden

How did Covid-19 impact smoking, drinking and drug use?

Undoubtedly the pandemic impacted the way children interacted with substances. NHS Digital analysed pupils school learning and socialising in the last school year (September 2020 to July 2021).

Researchers found that school children who regularly met up with people outside their school or home were more likely to have recently smoked, drank alcohol or taken drugs.

Of pupils who met with people outside of school every day, the results were the following:

  • 9% were current smokers
  • 12% usually drank alcohol once a week
  • 19% had taken drugs in the last month

Results differed drastically for those individuals who had not met people outside of school in the past four weeks. For those school children, these proportions fell to 1%, 2%, and 2% respectively.

Low levels of life satisfaction for 57% of schoolchildren who use substances

NHS Digital also wanted to study the well-being of schoolchildren, and how this may be linked to smoking, alcohol and drug use.

Pupils were asked questions about life satisfaction, happiness, and anxiety.

Low levels of life satisfaction were experienced by 57% of young people who had recently smoked, drank alcohol and taken drugs. This compared to 35% who had recently done just one of these things, and 18% who had not recently smoked, drank or taken drugs.


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