The number of Ontario teenagers who smoke cigarettes has plummeted to historic lows, but a worrisome number of young people are still binge drinking and using marijuana and other illicit drugs, a report has found.
One of the trends discovered is that the gap between boys and girls is closing when it comes to binge drinking and drug use.
The Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey, published by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health based in Toronto, is used to track patterns of the use and abuse of alcohol, drugs and other types of substances among young people across the province. Nearly 9,300 students from Grades 7 to 12 were surveyed in 2011.
The survey found that the number of young people who smoke dropped to 9 per cent in 2011 from 12 per cent in 2009, a significant decrease that represents an all-time low since the survey began in 1977.
While the report also found slight decreases in binge drinking and cannabis use, the numbers are still high enough to warrant concern about the short- and long-term impact, said Robert Mann, a senior scientist at CAMH and the survey’s co-principal investigator.
More than half, or 55 per cent, of respondents reported drinking alcohol in the previous year, and about one in five, or 22 per cent, of students had engaged in binge drinking at least once in the month before the survey was done. The survey defines binge drinking as having five or more drinks on one occasion.
While the binge-drinking rate is a decrease from 28 per cent in 2009, it’s hardly good news because it’s still quite common and could have serious implications for the health of young people, Dr. Mann said. “It’s a common drinking pattern that’s also a very hazardous drinking pattern,” he said.
Binge drinking also has other consequences. The survey found that 18 per cent of students reported hazardous or harmful drinking behaviours, characterized by dependence on alcohol or drinking-related injuries. One in 10 students said they had injured themselves or someone else while drinking. Males and females were equally likely to report dangerous drinking patterns, the report said. At the same time, 16 per cent of students said they had been drunk or high at school at least once in the past year.
Meanwhile, cannabis use also dropped slightly, to 22 per cent in 2011 from 26 per cent in 2009. But it remains a cause of concern because of the implications of cannabis use. In particular, one in 10 students who smoked marijuana in the previous year displayed signs of dependence, according to the survey.
For the first time, students were asked about operating a snowmobile, boat, Sea-Doo or all-terrain vehicle after drinking, and 7 per cent reporting they had done so at least once in the previous year.
One surprising trend, according to Dr. Mann, is that girls have caught up to boys when it comes to binge drinking, cannabis use and other problem behaviours. In many instances, it appears that while male substance use has remained relatively stable or even declined, the number of females engaging in those activities has risen significantly. For instance, in 1999, 20.3 per cent of boys and 15.7 per cent of girls reported hazardous or harmful drinking behaviour. By 2011, those numbers were 18.1 for boys and 17.6 for girls.
The report also noted other serious issues involving students and substance abuse over the past year:
Seven per cent of teens who drive got behind the wheel within an hour of consuming two or more alcoholic drinks;
Half of all teens consumed caffeinated energy drinks, such as Red Bull;
Seven per cent of students used over-the-counter cough and cold medications to get high;
One per cent of students used OxyContin, a highly addictive prescription painkiller, for non-medical reasons;
An estimated 8,900 Ontario teens have been in a treatment program for alcohol or drug use, based on an extrapolation of the survey results.