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Doyle, Anne (2021) European schools drug and alcohol survey. Drugnet Ireland , Issue 76, Winter 2021 , pp. 18-20.

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This is the seventh Irish data-collection wave of the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD) that collects comparable data on substance use among European students aged 15 and 16 years.1 In the 2019 data-collection wave, 1,949 Irish students, from a stratified random sample of 50 post-primary schools, completed a questionnaire on issues including alcohol use, cigarette smoking and e-cigarette use, cannabis and other illegal drug use, gambling, gaming, and internet use.

Alcohol findings

The alcohol findings from the 2019 ESPAD in Ireland report regarding prevalence, perceived availability, and age of initiation of alcohol use are presented below. Associated factors, including gender, social class, and familial and peer variables, are also examined.

Alcohol consumption: Overall, 73% of respondents had consumed alcohol in their lifetime. Some 65% of students had consumed alcohol in the last 12 months and 41% had consumed alcohol in the last 30 days.

Heavy episodic (‘binge’) drinking: Eighteen per cent of respondents had engaged in binge drinking once or twice in the last 30 days and 14% had done so more than three times in the last 30 days.

Reports of being drunk: Thirty-six per cent of students had ever been drunk in their lifetime and 16% had been drunk in the last 30 days. More females (17%) than males (15%) reported being drunk in the last month.

Level of intoxication: Students were asked to indicate how drunk they were on the last day they drank alcohol, with male and female students being equally likely to report intoxication, including heavy intoxication.

Consumption of particular drinks: With regard to type of drinks consumed, the most popular alcoholic drinks among boys were beer (36%) and cider (32%), while among girls spirits (32%) and cider (25%) were the most popular.

Perceived access to alcohol: Students were asked how difficult they thought it would be to get particular alcoholic drinks. Results show that the majority of students believed it would be ‘fairly easy’ or ‘very easy’ to obtain all types of alcoholic drinks mentioned.

Age of first trying alcohol: As in previous surveys, age 15 years (52%) was the most common age at which students first drank alcohol, followed by age 14 (28%). Males were more likely to report early initiation at age 12 years or younger. 

Age of first getting drunk: Most students (60%) had never been drunk, while the majority of students who said that they had ‘got drunk on alcohol’ had done so at age 15 years (21%).

Consequences of alcohol use: Asked about consequences of alcohol use, damaging or losing property was the most frequently reported (11%), followed by serious argument (7%), injury or accident (7%), involved in a fight (5%), and in trouble with the police (4%). Females were also more likely than males to be victims of an unwanted sexual advance while under the influence of alcohol.

Perceived risk: Students were asked how much they thought people risked harming themselves physically or in other ways if they consumed alcohol in varying amounts. The findings show that students were cognisant of the risks associated with alcohol consumption. Almost one-half of students perceived a moderate risk to drinking one or two drinks nearly every day. Over two-thirds of students said there was a great risk to drinking four to five drinks nearly every day, while 45% thought there was a great risk to having five drinks or more nearly every weekend.

Drinking motivation: The reasons given most frequently for using alcohol were to make social gatherings more fun (49%), to help respondents ‘to enjoy parties’ (48%), and ‘it’s fun’ (48%). The least popular motivations for drinking were ‘to be liked’ (13%) and ‘to get high’ (16%).

Factors related to alcohol consumption

Socioeconomic status: Socioeconomic status was measured by the educational attainment level of the student's father and mother. Results show that students whose father received primary education only were the most likely to have drunk alcohol 20 times or more in their lifetime (26%), while those whose fathers completed third-level education were the least likely (14%).

By contrast, students whose mothers had completed their education at or before the end of primary schooling were less likely to consume alcohol 20 times or more (10%) than students whose mothers had secondary (23%) or third-level (14%) education.

School

Absences: Skipping school and absence from school due to illness and other reasons were significantly associated with lifetime and current alcohol consumption. Some 67% of students who had not missed school due to illness had tried alcohol, with this number rising to 78% of students who had missed five to six days of school due to illness. Similarly, of students who had skipped school for seven or more days, 92% had tried alcohol in their lifetime. This number fell to 69% for students who had never skipped school. Some 81% of students who were absent from school for other reasons had tried alcohol in their lifetime compared with 69% of students who had not missed school for other reasons. Among students who had missed five to six days of school due to illness, about one-half had had alcohol in the last 30 days. Of students who had not missed school, a higher percentage (66%) were not current drinkers. Some 79% of students who skipped school on seven or more days were current drinkers.

School grade: Average grade in school was significantly associated with lifetime alcohol use. A lower percentage of students with A and B grades (67%) had tried alcohol in their lifetime compared with students who had E grade or lower (70%). However, D-grade students had the highest rate of lifetime alcohol consumption at 78%.

Parental monitoring: There was a significant association between parental monitoring of Saturday nights and alcohol consumption. Noticeably more students (96%) whose parents sometimes know where they are on Saturday nights have tried alcohol than those whose parents always know (64%). Similarly, 72% of students whose parents sometimes know where they are and 63% of students whose parents usually do not know where they are on Saturday nights were current drinkers compared with 31% whose parents always know where they are on Saturday nights.

Household type: 75% of students in one-parent households had tried alcohol, compared with 67% in ‘other’ households and 72% in households with two or more parents. Household type was not significantly associated with lifetime or current drinking.

Peer alcohol use: There was a significant association between lifetime and current drinking and peer drunkenness. Some 72% of students who answered that all their friends get drunk had tried alcohol in their lifetime, while 66% who said that none of their friends get drunk reported that they had tried alcohol. Similarly, one-half of students who said that all of their friends get drunk reported that they were current drinkers themselves, compared with 33% who said none of their friends get drunk.

Conclusion

Across Europe, there have been reductions in the use of alcohol and heavy episodic drinking. In Ireland, the reduction in drinking was at a substantial rate, with a 30% reduction in binge drinking and a 41% decrease in alcohol use since 1995. However, there has been an increase in the use of alcohol in the last four years. Since 2015, alcohol use has increased by 14% and heavy episodic drinking by 18%. These results call for continued targeted high-intensity campaigns and education initiatives, as well as policy and legislative change to protect adolescent health.

1 Sunday S, Keogan S, Hanafin J and Clancy L (2020) European Schools Project on Alcohol & Other Drugs: ESPAD 2019 Ireland. Dublin: TobaccoFree Research Institute Ireland. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/33347/

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