Smoking and drinking behaviour

Key findings

  • In 2017, 2.2% of secondary school students aged 12–14 were current smokers.
  • Between 2002 and 2017, the proportion of secondary school students who were current smokers declined significantly. While 9% of secondary school students were smoking in 2002, in 2017 this had decreased 4-fold to 2%.

Tobacco smoking is the leading preventable cause of death and disease in Australia and a leading risk factor for many chronic conditions such as cancer, respiratory diseases and cardiovascular disease (AIHW 2018).

People who start smoking during their early adolescent years are more likely to smoke daily later in life (AIHW 2017b). In 2015, tobacco use was responsible for 9% of the total burden of disease for the entire population when taking into account illness and deaths (AIHW 2019).

Exposure to second-hand smoke (also known as passive smoking) can increase the risk of adverse child health outcomes such as causing or exacerbating asthma, acute chest infections or middle ear disease. Second-hand smoke can affect a child’s lung function, leading to greater vulnerability to other lung damage (Campbell et al. 2017).

Current Australian alcohol guidelines advise that children under 15 years of age are at the greatest risk of harm from drinking alcohol, making abstaining from drinking the safest option for this age group (NHMRC 2009). Drinkers under the age of 15 are much more likely than older drinkers to engage in hazardous behaviour or delinquency behaviour because of their drinking which puts them at risk of injury (NHMRC 2009).

As with smoking, starting to drink at an early age is related to more frequent and drinking more heavily in adolescence, which can then lead to a greater risk of alcohol-related harms in adolescence and adulthood (NHMRC 2009). Risky alcohol consumption can also increase the likelihood of developing a disease or health disorder (AIHW 2018). In 2015, alcohol use was responsible for 5% of the total burden of disease for the population when taking into account illness and deaths (AIHW 2019).

Box 1: Sources and definitions

Data on smoking and drinking by secondary school students comes from the Australian Secondary Schools’ Alcohol and Drug Survey (ASSAD). This triennial secondary school-based survey has been monitoring the use of tobacco and alcohol among Australian adolescent students since 1984, and the use of other substances since 1996. Data on teenagers not enrolled at school were not included in the school-based sample. The latest findings are from 2017.

Data on exposure to second-hand smoke is from the National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) which collects information on alcohol and tobacco consumption, and illicit drug use among those aged 12 or older in Australia. It also surveys people’s attitudes and perceptions relating to tobacco, alcohol and other drug use. The survey has been conducted every 2–3 years since 1985. The latest survey findings are from 2016.

Data on exposure to second-hand smoke for Indigenous children is available from the 2014–15 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey which collects information on a range of demographic, social, environmental and economic characteristics across all states and territories, and in Remote and Non-remote areas.

Definitions

A current smoker, as defined in the ASSAD, is defined as having smoked tobacco at least once in the 7 days before the survey.

A single occasion risky drinker, for the purposes of this section, is an adolescent who has drunk 5 or more standard drinks on a single occasion. This is based on the NHMRC’s Guideline 2 (single occasion risk): to reduce the risks of injury on a single occasion of drinking, a healthy adult should drink no more than 4 standard drinks on any 1 occasion (NHMRC 2009).

How many children smoke?

According to data from ASSAD, in 2017, 2.2% of secondary school students aged 12–14 were current smokers, and rates were similar for boys (2.6%) and girls (1.8%). Smoking was more common among 14 year olds (3.6%) than 12 year olds (1.5%).

How many children are exposed to second-hand smoke?

Data from the NDSHS indicates that in 2016, 2.8% of households with dependent children aged 14 and under had someone who smoked inside the house. Around one-quarter of these households (26%) had someone who only smoked outside the home, while the majority (almost three-quarters of households or 72%) had no-one at home who smoked regularly.

How many children aged 12–14 drink?

In 2017, 6.8% of secondary school students aged 12–14 had at least 1 drink on a single occasion in the last week and rates were similar for boys and girls (ASSAD data). Drinking was more common among 14 year olds (10.4%) compared with 12 year olds (4.2%).

In 2017, around 1% of secondary school students aged 12–14 engaged in single occasion risky drinking (that is, drank 5 or more standard drinks on 1 occasion in the past week), putting them at risk of injury. There was no statistically significant difference between rates of risky drinking in boys (1.2%) and girls (0.8%). Drinking at this level was again more common among 14 year olds (1.9%) compared with 12 year olds (0.2%).

Have risk behaviours improved over time?

Over 15 years (2002 to 2017), the proportion of secondary school students who smoked declined significantly (Figure 1). While 9% of secondary school students were smoking in 2002, in 2017 this had decreased 4-fold to 2%.

Figure 1: Students aged 12-14 who smoked, 1984–2017

This line graph shows the trend of students aged 12–14 who smoked each year from 1984 to 2017. The proportion of students who smoked decreased from 17%25 in 1984 to 2%25 in 2017 with a small increase to 14%25 in the mid-1990s.

Chart: AIHW. Source: Guerin & White 2018b.

Data from the NDSHS indicates that children’s exposure to tobacco smoke at home significantly declined over the 21 years to 2016. The proportion of households with dependent children where someone smoked inside the home fell from 31% in 1995 to just 2.8% in 2016 (a significant decline from 3.7% in 2013) (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Exposure to second-hand smoke in the home, households with children aged 0–14, 1995–2016

This line graph shows that the proportion of households where no one at home regularly smoked increased from 52%25 in 1995 to 72%25 in 2016. The proportion of households where someone only smoked outside the home increased from 17%25 to 26%25. The proportion of households where someone smoked inside the home decreased from 31%25 to 2.8%25.

Chart: AIHW. Source: AIHW 2017b.

Over the 15 years between 2002 and 2017, the proportion of secondary school students drinking at all (at least 1 drink) or engaging in single occasion risky drinking decreased significantly.

The proportion of children drinking at all decreased more than 3-fold, from 24% in 2002 to 6.8% in 2017. The proportion of children drinking 5 or more drinks on 1 occasion in the past week also decreased, from 3.7% in 2002 to 1% in 2017.

Figure 3: Single occasion risky drinking behaviour of students aged 12–14, 2016

This column chart shows the proportion of children aged 12–14 who engaged in single occasion risky drinking behaviour in 2002, 2005, 2008, 2011, 2014 and 2017. The proportion of those who did not drink increased from 76%25 to 93%25 between 2002 and 2017, while those who drank 1 to 4 drinks decreased from 20%25 to 5.8%25, and those who drank 5 or more drinks decreased from 3.7%25 to 1.0%25.

Chart: AIHW. Source: Guerin & White 2018b.

Are risk behaviours the same for everyone?

Smoking

The proportion of students aged 12–14 who were current smokers and lived in areas of greater socioeconomic disadvantage (lowest socioeconomic areas) was higher than the proportion who lived in areas of least disadvantage (highest areas) (2.9% and 1.4%, respectively). However, the difference was not statistically significant.

Figure 4: Students aged 12–14 who were current smokers, by socioeconomic status, 2017

This bar chart compares the proportion of students aged 12–14 who were current smokers nationally and by lowest and highest socioeconomic area. Students aged 12–14 in the lowest socioeconomic area group had the highest proportion of current smokers at 2.9%25, while 1.4%25 of those in the highest socioeconomic group were current smokers, and 2.2%25 of students in Australia.

Chart: AIHW. Source Guerin & White 2018b

Exposure to second-hand smoke

Children living in areas of greatest socioeconomic disadvantage (4.4%) were more likely exposed to second-hand smoke than those in areas of least disadvantage (0.8%). There was no statistically significant difference across remoteness areas for exposure to second-hand smoke in the home (Figure 5).

Data from the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS) 2014–15 shows that 13% (32,453) of Indigenous children aged 0–14 lived in households where someone smoked at home indoors. Note that NATSISS data are not directly comparable to NDSHS data (AIHW 2017a).

Figure 5: Exposure to second-hand smoke at home, by priority population groups 2016

This bar chart compares the exposure to second-hand smoke at home by remoteness and socioeconomic area.

Chart: AIHW. Source: NDSHS 2016, unpublished data.

Engaging in single occasion risky drinking

Students aged 12–14 living in the lowest socioeconomic areas (2.2%) were more likely to drink at risky levels than those in the highest areas (0.8%) (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Students aged 12–14 who engaged in single occasion risky drinking, by socioeconomic status, 2017

This bar chart compares the students aged 12–14 who engaged in single occasion risky drinking behaviour by socioeconomic area. Students aged 12–14 in the lowest socioeconomic area group had the highest proportion of students who engaged in single occasion risky drinking at 2.2%25, compared to 0.1%25 of those in the highest socioeconomic group, and 1.0%25 of students in Australia.

Chart: AIHW. Source: Guerin & White 2018b.

How many children aged 12–15 used illicit substances?

In 2017, around 14% of children aged 12–15 had ever used an illicit substance (Guerin & White 2018a). Boys (15%) were more likely than girls (13%) to have ever used an illicit substance.

The proportions of students that had used any illicit substance in their lifetime or in the past month (including or excluding cannabis) were similar in 2011, 2014, and 2017 (Guerin & White 2018a).

Data limitations and development opportunities

Currently there are no directly comparable national data on the smoking and drinking behaviour of Indigenous children, or children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

For more information, see What’s missing in Health.

Where do I find more information?

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