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Age of initiation
In 2019, the average age at which people first tried any illicit drug was 19.9 years, the oldest it has been in 18 years. This figure remained relatively stable since 2016 (19.8 years), but has increased overall since 2001 (18.6 years) (AIHW 2020, Table 4.17). The average age of initiation has increased since 2001 for a range of drugs including cannabis, cocaine, and inhalants (AIHW 2020).
Estimates from the NDSHS show that people aged 18–24 continue to be the most likely age group to use cannabis, and cannabis is the most widely used drug among this age group (AIHW 2020). In 2019, one-quarter (25%) of people in this age group had used cannabis in the past 12 months, compared with 11.6% of people aged 14 and over (AIHW 2020, Table 4.43). However, recent use of cannabis has been declining among this cohort since 2001 (32%), but remained stable from 2016 (24%) to 2019 (AIHW 2020).
Use of cannabis is relatively less common among 14–17 year olds, with 8.2% of people in this age group having recently used cannabis in 2019 (AIHW 2020, Table 4.43). This represents a decrease from 21% in 2001, and a slight increase from 7.9% in 2016.
The ASSAD survey reported that:
- In 2017, 8% of students aged 12–17 had used cannabis in the month before the survey and 16% reported using cannabis in their lifetime, making cannabis the most commonly used drug in this cohort (Guerin & White 2020, Table 6.1).
- There were no significant differences between 2011 and 2017 in the proportion of students aged 12–17 who reported lifetime and past month use of cannabis.
- However, there was a significant increase in the proportion of females aged 16–17 who had used cannabis in the past month (10% in 2011 compared with 14% in 2017) (Guerin & White 2020, Table 6.1).
Meth/amphetamine and other stimulants
Use of meth/amphetamine among younger people has declined over time. Estimates from the 2019 NDSHS showed that:
- Recent use of meth/amphetamine among young adults aged 18–24 has declined from 13.2% in 2001 to 2.3% in 2019. This pattern was consistent for both males (15.0% to 3.5%) and females (11.3% to 0.8%), although the 2019 estimates for both males and females have a relative standard error of 25% to 50% and should be interpreted with caution.
- The proportion of people aged 18–24 who have recently used meth/amphetamine remained stable from 2016 (2.3%) to 2019 (AIHW 2020, Table 4.72).
By contrast, recent use of cocaine and ecstasy has increased since 2016, though this has fluctuated over time. NDSHS estimates suggest that among people aged 18–24:
- Use of cocaine increased from 2016 (5.1%) to 2019 (10.8%), with significant increases for both males (from 5.7% to 13.1%) and females (4.5% to 8.0%) (AIHW 2020, Table 4.56).
- Use of ecstasy has been fluctuating since 2001 (11.7%), but significantly increased from 2016 (8.0%) to 2019 (10.8%). This was driven by an increase in recent use among males (from 7.4% in 2016 to 12.6% in 2019) (AIHW 2020, Table 4.63).
The use of stimulants among younger people aged 17 and under appears to be less common, with findings from the ASSAD survey revealing that most secondary school students aged 12–17 had never tried amphetamines (98%), cocaine (98%) or ecstasy (95%) (Guerin & White 2020).
Other drugs that are used by young people include inhalants, hallucinogens, ketamine, new and emerging psychoactive substances, and tranquilisers and other pharmaceuticals for non-medical purposes (AIHW 2020, Guerin & White 2020). The 2017 ASSAD survey showed that, among students aged 12–17:
- Around 1 in 5 (19%) students had ever used tranquilisers for a non-medical reason, but only 5% had used them in the past month (Table 2.53) (Guerin & White 2020). This is higher than 2019 NDSHS estimates (1.3% for lifetime use among people aged 14–17, and 0.7% for use in the past 12 months), though these estimates have relative standard errors of 25% to 50% and should be used with caution (AIHW 2020).
- 18% of students had deliberately sniffed inhalants at least once in their lifetime, with 7% reporting doing so in the past month (Table 2.53). 13% had used inhalants in the past year—of those, most (43%) had tried them once or twice however almost 1 in 5 (19%) had done so more than 10 times in the past year (Guerin & White 2020).
- The majority of students (97%) reported they had never used synthetic cannabis or any new synthetic drug in the last 12 months (Guerin & White 2020, Table 6.17). This is supported by findings from the 2019 NDSHS (AIHW 2020).
Additionally, the NDSHS has showed that use of certain drugs among younger people aged 18–24 has fluctuated or increased over time (AIHW 2020). Specifically:
- Non-medical use of pharmaceuticals in the past 12 months increased from 4.6% in 2007 to 6.3% in 2019, while use of ketamine rose from 1.6% in 2016 to 4.1% in 2019.
- The proportion of people who have recently used hallucinogens has fluctuated over time, with 5.2% of those aged 18–24 reporting recent use in 2019 (AIHW 2020).
Data from the 2019 NDSHS showed that the proportion of 18–24 year olds who reported recent illicit drug use has fluctuated over time and within jurisdictions (AIHW 2020, Table S.28).
Health and harms
For related content on health and harms, see also:
Burden of disease
The Australian burden of disease study 2018 found that in young people (aged 15–24):
- Alcohol use and illicit drug use were the leading causes of the total burden of disease in males.
- Alcohol use and illicit drug use were the second and third leading causes (respectively) of disease burden in females (AIHW 2021).
Younger people are also more likely to be victims of alcohol-related incidents. In 2019, 1 in 3 (34%) people aged 18–24 had been the victim of any alcohol-related incident (including physical and verbal abuse and being put in fear) in the previous 12 months (AIHW 2020). This was higher than for any other age group (AIHW 2020, Table 3.48).
Furthermore, 83% of risky drinkers aged 14–19 years reported that they were injured as a result of their drinking in the past 12 months and 7% attended the emergency department for an alcohol related injury (Lam et al. 2017).
Deaths due to harmful alcohol consumption
Alcohol-induced deaths are defined as those that can be directly attributable to alcohol use, as determined by toxicology and pathology reports (for example, chronic conditions such as alcoholic liver cirrhosis or acute conditions such as alcohol poisoning). Alcohol-related deaths include deaths directly attributable to alcohol use and deaths where alcohol was listed as an associated cause of death (for example, a motor vehicle accident where a person recorded a high blood alcohol concentration) (ABS 2018).
See also Health impacts: Deaths due to harmful alcohol consumption.
In 2021, ABS Causes of Death data reported 1,559 alcohol-induced deaths. Of these deaths, 3.2% (or 50 deaths) were in people aged 15–34, with this age group experiencing the lowest rate of death at (0.7 deaths per 100,000 population) (ABS 2022b, Table 13.12). In addition:
- 2 in 3 (68%) of these alcohol-induced deaths were from the chronic effects of alcohol (ABS 2022b, Table 13.16).
- Overall, the lowest age-specific rate for both females and males were for those aged 15–34 years (0.4 and 1.1 per 100,000 population, respectively) (ABS 2022b, Table 13.12).
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) analysis of the AIHW National Mortality Database reported 1,559 alcohol-induced deaths and 4,616 alcohol-related deaths in 2021:
- There were 0.1 deaths per 100,000 people for alcohol-induced deaths for people aged 15–19 and 0.4 per 100,000 population for those aged 20–24. This compares with the highest rate of 15.7 per 100,000 population for people aged 55–59.
- For alcohol-related deaths, the rate for people aged 15–19 was 3.7 per 100,000 population, a decrease from 4.1 per 100,000 population in 2020.
- For those aged 20–24 it was 9.6 per 100,000 population in 2020 and 7.3 per 100,000 population in 2021.
- These rates compare with the highest rate of alcohol-related death of 36.4 per 100,000 people for those aged 60–64 (Table S1.5).
Drug-induced deaths are defined as those that can be directly attributable to drug use and includes both those due to acute toxicity (for example, drug overdose) and chronic use (for example, drug-induced cardiac conditions) as determined by toxicology and pathology reports (ABS 2022b).
In 2021, ABS Causes of Death data reported 1,704 drug-induced deaths. Of these deaths, 5.3% (90 deaths) were in people aged 15–24 years. This age group had the lowest age-specific rate of death, 2.9 deaths per 100,000 population (ABS 2022b, Table 13.2).
AIHW analysis of the National Mortality database shows that in 2020, 22% of people aged 15–24 reported personal history of self-harm as the most frequently occurring psychosocial risk factor (Table S1.5).
In 2019, low rates of opioid-induced deaths were recorded for those aged 15–24 (2.1 per 100,000 population compared with the highest rate of 9.7 per 100,000 population for those aged 45–54) (Chrzanowska et al. 2021).
- The Australian Secondary Students' Alcohol and Drug (ASSAD) survey showed that in 2017, both male and female students who reported a mental health condition were more likely to report higher use of tobacco, alcohol and illicit substances than those that had not been diagnosed with a mental health condition (Guerin & White 2020).
- The Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing showed that in 2013–14, 45% of young people with major depressive disorder had used cannabis or other drugs (Lawrence et al. 2015).
The 2021–22 Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Services Early Insights report shows that 1 in 10 (10%) clients were aged 10–19. Over half (52%) of all clients were aged 20–39 (AIHW 2023).
These are similar to 2020–21, when 11% of all clients were aged 10–19 and 52% were aged 20–39 (AIHW 2022).
Data collected for the AODTS NMDS are released twice each year—an early insights report in April and a detailed report mid-year.
Data from the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Services National Minimum Data Set (AODTS NMDS) provide information on younger people in AOD treatment in Australia (AIHW 2021). For the purposes of the AODTS NMDS, young people are defined as those aged between 10 and 29 years.
The Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Services National Minimum Data Set (AODTS NMDS) provides information on treatment provided to clients by publicly funded AOD treatment services, including government and non-government organisations. Data from the AODTS NMDS showed that almost 2 in 5 (36%) clients were aged between 10 and 29 years in 2020–21, down from 43% in 2014–15. For clients seeking treatment for their own drug use, 1 in 10 (11%) were aged 10–19 and over 1 in 4 (26%) were 20–29 (AIHW 2022).
In 2020–21, among clients who sought treatment for their own alcohol or other drug use:
- The most common principal drug of concern for clients aged 10–19 was cannabis (60% of clients), followed by alcohol (15%).
- The most common principal drug of concern for clients aged 20–29 was cannabis (31%), followed by amphetamines (27%) (AIHW 2022, Table SC.10).
- Counselling was the most common main treatment type for clients aged 10–19 (48% of clients) and those aged 20–29 (47%). For clients aged 10–19, the second most common main treatment type was support and case management (20%); for those aged 20–29 it was assessment only (21%) (AIHW 2022, Table SC.19).
A study of the overlap between youth justice supervision and alcohol and other drug (AOD) treatment services from 1 July 2012 to 30 June 2016 showed that young people aged 10–17 who received an alcohol and other drug treatment service were 30 times as likely as the Australian population to be under youth justice supervision (21% compared with 0.7%) (AIHW 2018b).
Dual service clients of AOD treatment service and youth justice supervision were more likely than those who only received AOD treatment services to have multiple treatment episodes (47% compared with 19%) and principal drugs of concern (20% compared with 4%) (AIHW 2018b).