Teen alcohol and nicotine use in Europe is up, WHO urges preventive measures

Data covering all three areas revealed that more than one in two 15-year-olds experimented with alcohol, while one in five teenagers recently used e-cigarettes, the UN health agency said, in a call for urgent preventive measures. 

“The widespread use of harmful substances among children in many countries across the European Region – and beyond – is a serious public health threat,” said Dr Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe. 

“Considering that the brain continues to develop well into a person’s mid-20s, adolescents need to be protected from the effects of toxic and dangerous products.” 

Alcohol prevails, e-cigarettes follow 

Alcohol use remains prevalent among teenagers; 57 per cent of 15-year-olds claim to have tried it and 37 per cent drinking it within the last month. Roughly one in 10 young people across all age groups has experienced significant drunkenness, including being drunk at least twice in their lifetime. This rate climbs from five per cent at age 13 to 20 per cent by age 15, demonstrating an escalating trend in alcohol abuse among youngsters. 

E-cigarettes have also surged in popularity, surpassing traditional cigarettes, with 32 per cent of 15-year-olds trying them and 20 per cent using them in the last 30 days. This compares with 25 per cent of 15-year-olds who have smoked a conventional cigarette in their lifetime and 15 per cent who tried one in the past month. 

Perhaps surprisingly, cannabis use slightly declined: 12 per cent of 15-year-olds surveyed tried it in 2022, compared with 14 per cent in 2018. Early cannabis use can lead to dependence and problematic use patterns later in life, the report warns.  

The report also highlighted that although boys have traditionally drunk and smoked more than girls, this trend appears to be changing, with girls either matching or even exceeding boys in smoking, alcohol, and e-cigarette use by age 15.

Harmful product placement  

WHO experts expressed alarm at product placement for all substances in video games, entertainment programmes and other content aimed at young people via multimedia platforms, in a call for the implementation of comprehensive preventive measures.  

“Today, children are constantly exposed to targeted online marketing of harmful products, while popular culture, like video games, normalizes them,” Dr Kluge said. To preserve the health of youngsters, WHO is already working with countries to protect them from toxic and addictive products that could affect their quality of life in the years. 

To curb alcohol, nicotine, and tobacco use among youngsters, WHO wants countries to raise taxes, restrict product availability and sales locations, enforce the minimum legal purchasing age.

The UN health agency has also called for all flavourings to be prohibited, including menthol, in nicotine and tobacco products, while also imposing a comprehensive ban on advertising across mainstream and social media platforms. 

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