One in five 17-year-olds are ‘unhealthy smokers and drinkers’ - ESRI report

A further 36 per cent of adolescents have poor diets and worst level of physical activity

One in five 17-year-olds consume high levels of alcohol, are daily or occasional smokers and have poor diets, new research on clusters of health behaviour in adolescents shows.

A new report from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), the State’s independent think tank, published on Tuesday, found three distinct health clusters among young adults.

A group comprising 21 per cent of 17-year-olds - described as “unhealthy smokers and drinkers” - were found to have the highest level of alcohol consumption, were daily or occasional smokers, had moderate to low levels of physical activity and poor to moderate dietary quality.

Another group described as the “unhealthy diet and physical activity” group made up 36 per cent of this age group and did not smoke or drank alcohol rarely, once a month or less, but had the worst levels of physical activity and had the poorest diets.

A “healthy group” representing 43 per cent of 17-year-olds were non-smokers, drank rarely, engaged in exercise in six or more occasions in the previous fortnight and had the best diet.

The research, drawing on data from the "Growing Up in Ireland '98 Cohort" and funded by HSE Health and Wellbeing, found that young women are more likely to fall into the unhealthy smoker and drinker group and especially the unhealthy diet and activity groups.

Young people from working-class backgrounds were more likely to be a smoker and drink and those whose mothers had lower levels of education - Leaving Certificate or lower - were more likely to have poor diet and physical activity levels.

There were higher rates of drinking and smoking among young people whose parents are occasional or regular smokes, reflecting the impact of parental health behaviour on children.

The socioeconomic background of students and the school climate had a more significant effect than school policy on the membership of the various groups.

Negative interaction with teachers and “disaffection” from school was found to lead to greater levels of smoking and drinking.

"The research findings show that measures to promote both school engagement and a more positive school climate, while important for educational outcomes, are likely to have positive spillovers for other aspects of young people's lives, including health behaviours," said Anne Nolan, one of the authors of the report.