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Tuesday, 20 February, 2001, 07:01 GMT
UK children top drugs league
cannabis drag
Cannabis is the drug of choice for teenagers
Teenagers from the UK are more likely than most of their European counterparts to have taken drugs, drunk alcohol or smoked.

The findings, from a survey by the Alcohol and Health Research Centre, fuel the debate over the "culture" of drinking, smoking and taking drugs in this country.

There has been a slight decline in illicit drug use since the last survey of this kind in 1995.

But UK teenagers were still more likely than most Europeans to have taken a variety of illicit substances.

UK teenagers' drug and alcohol use
Ever been drunk: 75.8%
Cannabis: 35.4%
Amphetamines: 7.7%
Magic mushrooms: 5.1%
Ecstasy: 3.3%
Cocaine: 3.2%
Heroin: 2.7%
They were also well ahead of other most European nations in terms of binge drinking, and regular daily smoking.

The principal drug of choice for UK children was cannabis, with just over 35% of 15- to 16-year-olds having tried it.

Just under 65% had smoked conventional cigarettes, while more than 75% confessed to having been drunk at some time.

Other drug use was far less frequent: 15% had abused aerosols, glue or other "volatile substances", 8% had taken amphetamines and 3.3% ecstasy.

Harder drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine were less common.

But the report's author Dr Martin Plant, from the Edinburgh-based centre, said: "One of the problems we have is that drug taking has now become so commonplace that it is widely regarded as socially acceptable."

Brian Idden MP, chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Abuse, called for a "complete rethink" of anti drug and alcohol policy in the UK.

He said: "We need to have a national strategy in Britain for alcohol, tobacco and drugs."

He said that he had heard of children as young as eight in his constituency of Bolton who were drinking and using cannabis.

"We can point out the health risks to young people - and I don't think these are pointed out enough in this country."

Drunken children

The results were also worrying reading for charities trying to stem the tide of teenage drunkenness in the UK.

Nearly 30% of the sample of 15- and 16-year-olds said they had been drunk at least 20 times in their life - a quarter said they had been intoxicated three or more times in the past month.

The charity Alcohol Concern said the findings backed their own experience, and they called for tighter enforcement of anti-underage drinking laws.

A spokesman said: "Drinks such as alcopops are targeted at young people because they're sweet, and often young people don't realise how much alcohol is in them.

A small percentage had tried ecstasy
"We just want to see the existing laws enforced properly when they have been broken by people selling alcohol to underage drinkers.

"This group of young people is drinking more and drinking more frequently," he said.

The results are to be presented to the European conference on alcohol taking place in Copenhagen this week.

World Health Organisation director general Gro Harlem Brundtland has already condemned alcohol companies for aggressively marketing their products to young people.

Smoking figures

UK teenagers are also among the most prolific smokers in the 30 European countries surveyed.

More girls than boys admitted smoking, and in total, 34% of children said they had smoked during the past month.

Clive Bates, of Action on Smoking and Health (Ash), said the key to stopping teenagers smoking was to reduce adult smoking.

He said: "The danger for these children is that they will completely underestimate how difficult it is to give up smoking."

Paul Boateng, Minister for Children and Young People, said the government had put in place a 10-year strategy to tackle drug misuse, and new proposals to tackle under-age drinking were currently before parliament.

In addition, ministers were committed to improving standards in education, to reform of the youth justice system and had introduced the New Deal for the young unemployed.

But he said: "This cannot just be a matter for government. Encouraging more responsible behaviour amongst the young is a matter for us all - parents, teachers, friends and communities."

Why do children in the UK drink, smoke and take drugs more than most of their European counterparts? Take part in our Talking Point here

The BBC's James Westhead
"Compared to our European neighbours the difference is startling"
Psychologist Dr Aric Sigman
"Alcohol has always been the biggest drug problem"
Freelance Italian journalist Lorenzo Totaro
assesses why in his country teenagers drink much less
See also:

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