Significant drop in children drinking alcohol and smoking, new study shows

The number of children dieting has increased in recent years, report says

Rates of smoking, alcohol and cannabis use among school-aged children have significantly decreased since 1998, while the number of children who reported being on a diet has increased in recent years, according to a new report.

There has also been a decrease in the number of children bullying others, while reported sexual activity has dropped since 2010.

The findings are in Trends in Health Behaviours, Health Outcomes and Contextual Factors between 1998-2018: Findings from the Irish Behaviour in School-aged Children study, published on Monday.

The report was led by senior researcher Aoife Gavin in collaboration with the HBSC research team at the Health Promotion Research Centre in NUI Galway.


The study comprised of a sample of 15,557 pupils aged 10 to 17 years from 255 primary and post-primary schools across Ireland.

The proportion of respondent who reported being current smokers decreased from 22.6 per cent in 1998 to 5.3 per cent in 2018. In 2002, 61 per cent of young people aged 15-17 who had ever smoked reported having their first cigarette at age 13 or younger, compared to 32.1 per cent in 2018.

A third of children reported they had ever been drunk in 1998, compared to 19 per cent 20 years later.

The proportion of children who reported cannabis use in the previous 12 months dropped from 12.3 per cent to 8.5 per cent over the same period.

The percentage of 15- to 17-year-olds who reported that they have ever had sex was 22 per cent in 2018, compared to 25.5 per cent in 2010.

Of those young people who reported having sex in 2018, almost two-thirds (65.9 per cent) said they used a condom the last time they had sex, down from 78 per cent in 2010.

Meanwhile, between 2002 and 2018 there was an increase in children who reported being on a diet or “doing something else to lose weight” from 11.9 per cent to 14.4 per cent.

The increase was most evident among older boys and boys across all social class groups, particularly those in the lowest social class group.

The proportion of young people doing vigorous exercise four or more times a week has remained consistent – 52.1 per cent in 2018, compared to 52.6 per cent in 1998.

The percentage of children who reported feeling low about every week or more frequently rose to 34.3 per cent in 2018 from 23 per cent twenty years previous.

In 2018, 13.7 per cent of children reported bullying at school one or more times in the past couple of months, compared to 25.1 per cent in 1998.

Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth Roderic O’Gorman said the research suggests that “that an increased emphasis is needed around supporting the positive mental health of young people, and following the impact of Covid-19, this is an issue that may become more prevalent”.

Minister of State with responsibility for Public Health, Wellbeing and National Drugs Strategy Frank Feighan said the international project has "provided us with essential data, which has helped to shape and inform policy relating to the health and wellbeing of our children and young people".

“This new Trends report gives us a wonderful opportunity to take stock, both of the many very significant improvements to our children’s health, and of those areas where we have not, perhaps, made as much progress as we would have liked,” he said.

“The information contained in this study will be of great importance in terms of future planning and policy direction regarding children’s health.”

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns is a reporter for The Irish Times