B.C. teens trying cannabis, alcohol or tobacco at lowest rate in 30 years, study finds

Teens use substances less

A survey that has canvassed tens of thousands of teens over 30 years has found the majority of adolescents are less likely to have tried alcohol, tobacco or cannabis than at any other time since the survey began. But the research also found that those who do use those substances did so at a younger age than before the pandemic.

The McCreary Centre Society, a Vancouver-based non-profit that does research on youth health, released the results of its seventh provincewide survey on Wednesday. The survey was completed by 38,500 public school students from Grade 7 through to Grade 12.

The BC Adolescent Health Survey (BC AHS) has been conducted every five years since 1992. Annie Smith, McCreary’s executive director, said that over the past three decades, researchers saw that young people were waiting longer and longer to use substances.

But she said the latest results show a shift: “To see that drop back now and more young people using really before they’re even in high school is concerning.”

The survey results show there has been a decrease over the past 30 years in the percentage of youth who had ever smoked tobacco. In 2023, 15 per cent of had smoked tobacco, compared to 21 per cent a decade ago, 34 per cent two decades ago and 60 per cent in 1992.

The report says despite the decreases over time, roughly one in four young people who smoked tobacco were aged 12 or younger, up from one in five in 2018.

A similar pattern was found in alcohol consumption. The research found 38 per cent of youth had tried alcohol (beyond a few sips), which was a decrease from previous survey years. But those who drank were more likely to have first done so before they entered high school. For example, 28 per cent first drank at age 12 or younger, compared to 23 per cent in 2018. The survey results also showed those teens were less likely to wait until they were 15 to first try alcohol.

Compared to five years ago, there was a slight increase in youth who used cannabis for the first time at age 12 or younger, and a decrease in the percentage who waited until they were 15 or older to try it. Among those who’ve ever used cannabis, the majority reported that it had been shared among a group of friends.

Dr. Smith said the worry about substance use at younger ages is that those consuming are more likely to use in risky ways and consume large quantities.

“When we look at alcohol, we see that those who started drinking at a young age are much more likely to go on to be binge drinking, and to be drinking more than two drinks a day and drinking outside the guidelines. We see the same thing for cannabis,” she said in an interview.

“So it’s that kind of early initiation that seems to lead to more risky use, and then also impact other areas of their life. It affects connection to school, it affects attendance at school, all those pieces.”

Among those who had used alcohol or other substances, the majority reported doing so for fun, followed by those who wanted to experiment. Some reported using them because of stress or feeling down.

The survey results also suggest youth reported experiencing poorer mental health. The percentage of those who self-harmed increased from 15 per cent in 2013 to 24 per cent in 2023. Further, teens were less likely to rate their mental health positively and feel hopeful for their future compared to five years ago.

The majority of males rated their mental health as good or excellent, compared to half of females, and around one in five non-binary youth. Males were the most likely to report positive health and well-being, and non-binary youth were the least likely. Non-binary youth were around four times as likely as males to have deliberately self-harmed in the past year, and more than four times as likely to have seriously considered suicide and attempted suicide in that time period, the survey results showed.

When it comes to specific mental-health conditions, youth most commonly reported having an anxiety disorder, followed by attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Both the percentage of youngsters with ADHD and the percentage of those with autism more than doubled in five years, and there were increases in other conditions such as alcohol or other substance-use addiction. However, there was a decrease in those reporting depression.

Dr. Smith said many of the survey results are intertwined and may contribute to the declining mental health among young people. For instance, youth were less likely to feel connected to their school and community, and to have in-person friends. They also reported feeling less safe at school. On a practical note, Dr. Smith added, fewer young people are sleeping for eight hours.

“So it seems like, in many ways, a perfect storm of factors.”

The report also noted positive changes over the past five years, including an increase in the number of Indigenous youth who could speak at least a few words of an Indigenous language.

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