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Home > Sixth ESPAD survey report published.

Millar, Sean (2017) Sixth ESPAD survey report published. Drugnet Ireland , Issue 60, Winter 2017 , pp. 10-11.

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The European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD) has conducted surveys of school-going children every four years since 1995 using a standardised method and a common questionnaire. The sixth survey was undertaken in 35 European countries during 2014/15 and collected information on alcohol, tobacco and other substance use among 15‒16-year-old students.


An important goal of the ESPAD survey is to monitor trends in alcohol consumption, tobacco and other drug use among 15‒16-year-olds and to compare trends between countries and groups of countries. It also provides an opportunity to observe changes in trends in Ireland over the six waves of the past 20 years. The rationale for the ESPAD surveys is that school students are easily accessible and are at an age when the onset of substance use is likely to occur.


This article concentrates on findings from the survey conducted in Ireland in 2014/15, in which 2036 questionnaires were completed by young people from 50 randomly selected post-primary schools.1 Of these participants, 1493 were born in 1999 and will be included in the international ESPAD dataset.


Alcohol use

Respondents were asked on how many occasions in their lifetime had they used alcohol. Just over one-quarter (26.4%) answered that they had never consumed an alcoholic beverage in their lifetime. Overall, 73.6% of students had drunk alcohol in their lifetime, with almost 20% having tried alcohol once or twice. Sixteen per cent had drunk alcohol on more than 20 occasions. Significant gender differences in lifetime use of alcohol were noted, with more female (75.3%) than male (72%) respondents having ever consumed alcohol. Male students, however, were more likely to have tried alcohol 40 times or more (10.7%) than females (7.5%).


Thirty-six per cent of students had drunk alcohol in the past 30 days and were considered to be current drinkers. Twenty-one per cent reported drinking alcohol once or twice in the past 30 days, while only a small proportion of respondents had used alcohol 10 times or more (3.4%). Similar to lifetime use, more female (37.1%) than male (34.9%) students indicated current alcohol use. Nevertheless, overall, current alcohol use among students in Ireland has declined (Table 1), with a 28% reduction since 2011 and a 48% reduction over the past 20 years.


Respondents who drank alcohol were asked to rate their level of intoxication. Fourteen per cent of students reported being drunk in the past 30 days and 40 students reported being drunk more than once or twice during the past month (3.0%). A similar number of male (14.7%) and female (13.2%) students reported being drunk in the past month and there was no significant difference in mean score on the drunkenness scale between male (Mean=3.20, SD=1.848) and female (Mean=3.12, SD=1.742) students.

Beer (28.6%), spirits (24.5%) and cider (21.3%) were the most common types of alcohol consumed in the month prior to the survey. The least popular drinks were wine (11.9%) and alcopops (11.4%). Respondents were asked how difficult they thought it would be to obtain specific alcoholic beverages, with response categories ranging from ‘impossible’ to ‘very easy’. A majority of students believed that it would be fairly easy to obtain all beverage types examined; 37.8% gave this answer for beer and 34.7% for cider. A high percentage of students also said it would be very easy to get beer (31.9%) or cider (30.2%), while only 5.2% said it would be impossible to get beer, with 7% reporting that it would be fairly difficult. Respondents believed that it would be slightly more difficult to obtain wine and spirits, with a larger number reporting that it would be fairly or very difficult, and fewer perceiving that it would be fairly easy or very easy.



Participants were asked on how many occasions had they smoked cigarettes during their lifetimes. More than two-thirds of students reported that they had never smoked a cigarette and a further 10.4% had only smoked on one or two occasions. Eight per cent of all students reported smoking on at least 40 occasions. Overall, almost one-third had ever smoked in their lifetime (32.3%).


When students were asked to consider how often they smoked in the past 30 days, 87% reported that they had not smoked at all, while 13% had smoked at least once. Almost 7% of students reported smoking less than one cigarette per day and a further 5.7% smoked between one and 20 cigarettes per day. Ten students reported smoking more than 20 cigarettes a day. While the proportion of male and female students who had ever smoked was similar, there were gender differences in the intensity of smoking behaviours. More males reported smoking daily and smoking more cigarettes per day than females, while more female students smoked less frequently than every day.


Trends over time demonstrate that current smoking among school-aged children in Ireland is greatly reduced when compared to previous ESPAD surveys. This represents a reduction of over two-thirds (68%) since the first survey was conducted in 1995, and a 38% reduction over the previous four years (Table 2).

Over 60% of students perceived obtaining cigarettes as either fairly easy or very easy, and male students believed it would be easier to access cigarettes than females. Most students believed that there is a moderate risk (34%) or a slight risk (30%) of smoking occasionally, and two-thirds answered that they perceived a great risk from smoking one or more packs of cigarettes per day.


Other substance use

Students were asked how many times in their lives had they used cannabis. Male students (22.4%) were more likely than females (15.5%) to have ever tried cannabis. Overall, 19% of students had ever tried cannabis, out of which most had tried it once or twice. There was also a sizeable minority of students who smoked cannabis 40 times or more (3.9%).


Overall, 16.8% of students had used cannabis in the past 12 months. Again, more male (19.5%) than female respondents (13.9%) reported using cannabis in the past year. A small number of males (4.1%) reported using cannabis 40 times in the past year, suggesting heavier use than female respondents (1.2%). Boys were also more likely to have tried cannabis at a younger age than girls. Three per cent of boys and 1% of girls had first used cannabis at 12 years or younger. Most students had first tried cannabis at 14 years of age (33%) and 15% had first tried it at 13 years. When respondents were asked how easy they thought it would be to obtain cannabis, 41.9% perceived that it would be impossible, very difficult or fairly difficult and 43.4% perceived that it would be fairly easy or very easy.


With regard to lifetime use of other substances, after tobacco, alcohol and cannabis, inhalants were the most commonly used substance at 10%. The next most regularly used drugs were painkillers ‘to get high’ (4%), ecstasy (3%) and tranquilisers (3%). In general, however, the prevalence of illicit drug use was low.


Trend analysis showed that lifetime use of cannabis in Ireland and other ESPAD survey countries stayed approximately the same, with a one-percentage point decrease for the ESPAD average and a one-percentage point increase for Ireland. For Ireland, this represents a drop of almost half since 1995, although lifetime prevalence of cannabis use has remained relatively unchanged at approximately 20% since 2007 (Table 3). In Ireland, there was an increase in the lifetime use of illicit drugs other than cannabis by one percentage point, increasing from 6% to 7%. Overall, however, there has been a 56% reduction since 1995. 

Current trends

In summary, results from the ESPAD 2015 survey suggest a decline in the use of alcohol and cigarettes among school-aged children in the Republic of Ireland. The use of cannabis, inhalants and other illicit substances may have stabilised, with an overall reduction over the six data collection waves from 1995 to 2015. Nevertheless, it should be noted that early school-leavers, a group known to be vulnerable to alcohol and drug use, are not represented in this survey. Consequently, the results may not indicate the true extent of alcohol and other illicit substance use among all 15‒16-year-old children within Ireland.


  1. Taylor K, Babineau K, Keogan S, Whelan E, Clancy L (2016) ESPAD 2015: European Schools Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs in Ireland. Dublin: Department of Health.

Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, Report
Drug Type
Alcohol, All substances, Substances (not alcohol/tobacco), Cannabis, CNS depressants / Sedatives, CNS stimulants, Cocaine, Inhalents and solvents, Opioid, New psychoactive substance, Prescription/Over the counter, Tobacco / Nicotine
Intervention Type
Screening / Assessment
Issue Title
Issue 60, Winter 2017
January 2017
Page Range
pp. 10-11
Health Research Board
Issue 60, Winter 2017

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