Europe's Teenage Drug Use Hotspots Revealed By New Study

A study of 100,000 European school students paints a picture of teen drug use across the continent.
Max Daly
London, United Kingdom
November 12, 2020, 5:00pm
teenager rolling spliff

A survey of European school students has revealed stark differences in the ways that children across the continent use both drugs and the internet.

The European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD), which surveyed 100,000 15 and 16-year-olds across 35 European countries, was published today by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.

It found that students are now just as likely to have smoked an e-cigarette as a real cigarette; that Danish children are the biggest drinkers; that Eastern Europeans are the most likely to use synthetic drugs; and that Italians are big weed smokers. In Iceland, teenagers tend to give drugs the cold shoulder.  

Across Europe, the use of vapes is now on par with the use of traditional cigarettes: two in five of students said they had tried both. Vaping is most popular among Lithuanian children, with two-thirds having ever used an e-cigarette, and those from Monaco, with 41 percent using them regularly.

One in five European teenagers said they currently smoked cigarettes, compared to one in three in 1995. This figure was highest in Italy and Bulgaria, with one in three teenagers smoking a cigarette in the last month, compared to just 5 percent in Iceland.

One in six teenagers said they had smoked a cigarette before they were 14. In Lithuania and Latvia, one in three had smoked before they were 14, compared to just 7 percent in Iceland.

The survey found alcohol use has also fallen over the last two decades – just under half of teenagers said they had drunk alcohol in the last month, while 13 percent said they had got drunk. Nevertheless, one in three European teenagers said they had used alcohol before they were 14.

In Georgia, 60 percent of teenagers said they had drunk alcohol before they were 14, compared to just 7 percent in Iceland. Georgia also had the highest proportion – one in five ­– who said they had got drunk before they were 14

The most regular, and heaviest, school student drinkers are the Danish, with three-quarters drinking alcohol in the last month, and 40 percent – twice the proportion of any other country in Europe – admitting they got drunk.

On average, almost one in five of the 15 and 16-year-olds surveyed said they had used an illegal drug – most frequently cannabis – a figure that has remained steady over the last decade. Students in the Czech Republic (29 percent) and Italy (28 percent) were the most likely to have taken any illegal drug, and in Kosovo they were the least likely, at 4.2 percent.

Across Europe, survey respondents trying illegal drugs under the age of 14 was generally rare. The youngest weed users came from France and Italy, while the youngest users of speed and crack were in Bulgaria.

Just under one in ten students said they had used a black market pharmaceutical drug, such as a tranquilliser or painkiller. In Slovakia (23 percent) and Latvia (22 percent), rates were more than double the European average.  

The students most likely to try LSD and MDMA were from Latvia and Estonia, while students in Cyprus are the most likely to have used crack or powder cocaine. Estonians were the most likely users of new psychoactive substances such as Spice and mephedrone, and Latvians the most likely to have abused inhalants.

The survey also asked students about their social media, gaming and gambling habits. Students in Romania, Montenegro and Ukraine spent the most time on social media, with one in four spending more than six hours a day on these sites during school days. The least regular users of social media were in Cyprus, Bulgaria, Kosovo and Georgia.

The most frequent gamers were from Bulgaria and Sweden. One in five students reported gambling, with those in Greece and Cyprus the most likely to gamble.

ESPAD’s survey did not cover the UK, but figures on teenage drug use in England and Wales are expected to be published by the NHS next year.