Aims: The aim of this study was to describe associations between alcohol, tobacco and illicit drug use in adolescents and demographic factors associated with substance use.
Design, setting, subjects: The study was a classroom survey of the total population of pupils (n = 5383, ages 11-16) in six schools selected from different locations around England.
Measures: Respondents were asked confidentially about their use and extent of use of alcohol, cigarettes and illegal drugs.
Findings: The prevalence of regular substance use within the sample rose from 30.4% at age 11 to 83.9% at age 16. The prevalence of alcohol use did not differ between girls and boys, but smoking was more prevalent in girls and illegal drug use was more prevalent in boys. Alcohol was used more frequently than any other substance, or combination of substances, and alcohol use almost invariably accompanied the use of other substances: exclusive use of cigarettes or illegal drugs was negligible. In addition, high levels of alcohol intoxication were associated with increased use of both illegal drugs and cigarettes. Overall, around half the drinkers (46.8%) preferred alcopops to other types of alcoholic drink; this figure was greater in girls (56.4%) than in boys (37.1%), but fell sharply with age (62.9% at age 11; 37.7% at age 16), particularly in boys. Preference for spirits increased with age, and was particularly marked in girls (28.4% in girls vs. 18.5% in boys at age 16). Spirits drinkers were more likely to use cigarettes and drugs, and had been more frequently drunk, than either beer/wine or alcopops drinkers; these measures also tended to be higher in alcopop drinkers than in beer/wine drinkers, particularly among 11-13-year-old girls.
Conclusion: The use of both tobacco and illicit drugs appears to be strongly associated with alcohol use, which is more prevalent, and the risk of smoking and illicit drug use is particularly high in adolescents who report high levels of drunkenness. Our results are consistent with a simple threshold model of substance abuse in which alcohol occupies a low threshold position relative to the higher threshold of cigarettes and illegal drugs. Smoking, drug use and drunkenness were lowest in beer/wine drinkers, intermediate in alcopop drinkers, and highest in spirits drinkers.