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Sharp decline in youth drinking revealed in Sheffield report

Drinking beer
Drinking beer

A new report shows youth drinking has dropped dramatically over the last 15 years. Young people are now less likely to drink and, if they do, they start doing so later, drink less often and in smaller amounts.  

Numbers of 11-15 year olds who have ever had a full alcoholic drink, fell by 17 per cent, from 61 per cent in 2002, to 44 per cent in 2016, a study by Sheffield researchers shows.

For eight to 12 year-olds, the number fell from 25 per cent to just four percent. 

And the proportion of 16-17 year-olds who had been binge drinking within the last week dropped from 30 per cent in 2002 to just six per cent in 2016.

The average age of a first alcoholic drink for 11-15 year-olds also increased from 11.6 in 2002 to 12.3 in 2016.

Smoker numbers fell from 38 per cent in 2002 to 17 per cent in 2016, and the proportion of people using cannabis fell from 17 per cent in 2002 to 11 per cent in 2016.

The report, published by the University of Sheffield’s Alcohol Research Group, is part of a new project funded by the Wellcome Trust to examine and explain the decline in youth drinking. 

It analysed data from the 1988-2016 Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use amongst Young People in England surveys and the 2001-2016 Health Surveys for England. 

The proportion of 16-17 year-olds who reported drinking alcohol over the past 12 months fell from 88 per cent in 2001 to 65 per cent in 2016, while over the same time period, the proportion of 16-24 year-old drinkers fell from 90 per cent to 78 per cent.

The research demonstrated there were also big dropss in how often and how much young people drink. 

Among those who were drinkers, the percentage of 16-24 year-olds who drank in the last week fell from 76 per cent to 60 per cent between 2002 and 2016, while for 11-15 year-olds it fell from 35 per cent to 19 per cent.

Dr Melissa Oldham, lead author of the report from the University of Sheffield’s Alcohol Research Group, said: “It may be that increases in internet use and online gaming are changing the way young people spend their leisure time.

“Economic factors may also play a role, as concern about increasing university tuition fees and the cost of housing means young people feel they have less disposable income to spend on alcohol.”

As well as a decline in alcohol use, smoking and illicit drug use has also decreased amongst 11-15 year-olds.

The proportion of people smoking fell from 38 per cent in 2002 to 17 per cent in 2016, and that of people using cannabis fell from 17 per cent in 2002 to 11 per cent in 2016.

Dr John Holmes, who leads the University of Sheffield's study of the decline in youth drinking, said: "These changes matter for public health today as young people suffer injuries, poor mental health and road traffic accidents when intoxicated. 

“If this generation also drinks less in later adulthood, we may see big reductions in 20 or 30 years in the diseases caused by alcohol."

The Sheffield Alcohol Research Group is based at the University of Sheffield’s School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR).

Formed in 1992, ScHARR is one of the largest and most dynamic schools of health research within the UK.  The School tackles some of the world’s biggest health challenges to improve the health and care of people in the UK and around the world.