Buried Good News: Youth Smoking and Drinking Rates

I want to write a quick blog on the Health & Social Care Information Centre’s latest stats on smoking and drinking among 11 – 15 year olds. I’m doing this because I’m not sure this data will get a huge amount of coverage elsewhere, this being another good news story on the reduced prevalence of drinking and smoking among young people. Young people sprawled out high streets, post-fight, makes a better media angle.

Here’s a summary of the results: 11-15 year-olds are less likely to have tried drinking alcohol than in the same age group were ten years ago; they were also far less likely to have had a drink in the past week. This age group are also much less likely to smoke: 22% have tried smoking – about half of the proportion who had tried smoking in the 2003 survey; 3% of this group said they smoked at least one cigarette per week, compared to 9% ten years ago. These are, by any standards, fantastic results and overwhelming evidence of the continuing trends against young people smoking and drinking.

There are two radically different interpretations of this data. Those who promote more regulation of tobacco and alcohol argue that these changes have been driven by interventions like advertising restrictions, and argue that more regulation is needed to continue this trend. Others claim that these trends are driven by education and awareness of the risks of these activities, that regulation has not been a significant influence, and that the evidence that consumption trends are going in the right direction shows that further regulation isn’t needed.

Where do I sit in this debate? As ACS Chief Executive, of course I broadly concur with the latter interpretation, especially when the costs of regulation so often fall on legitimate businesses like our members. As an individual, my concern rests more with the logic of the arguments in favour of regulation, and the way they patronise young people.

Young people today get better exam results because they know more about the world and take more responsibility for their futures; they don’t spend as much of their youth drunk as my generation because they’ve worked out it’s a pretty stupid thing to do and they’ve got other outlets for socialising and expressing themselves; they don’t smoke because they know the risks. Maybe there’s an argument that regulation has played a part in this sea change, but surely at the very most it’s been a marginal factor in influencing intelligent, educated and independent people’s choices about how they live their lives.

The media will largely ignore these figures partly because they are good news, but also because they cause editors to confront the inconvenient truth that things are, in fact, better than in their day.

This entry was posted by Victoria on Thu, 24/07/2014 - 15:10