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Simon Harris

'The tobacco industry targeting e-cigarettes at young people is cynical, sickening and dangerous'

A survey of over 15,500 schoolchildren in Ireland explored their relationship with alcohol, smoking, sex, food and exercise.

LAST UPDATE | 9 Jan 2020

HEALTH MINISTER SIMON Harris has been sharply critical of the tobacco industry in its approach to marketing e-cigarettes and vaping products. 

Summing up the results of the Health Behaviours in School-aged Children (HBSC) 2018 study, Harris said:

“We’re seeing fewer children in Ireland smoke, we’re seeing fewer children in Ireland that use cannabis, we’re seeing fewer children in Ireland try alcohol, and we’re seeing fewer children in Ireland eat fizzy soft drinks and sweets as well.”

Although there was a five-percentage-point drop in children aged 10-17 who had tried smoking, Harris expressed concern that 22% of 12-17 year olds said they had tried vaping, and that 9% said they had tried it in the past 30 days.

The tobacco industry is fast-evolving and targeting young people, and what they’re doing with e-cigarettes is cynical, sickening, and dangerous.

He said that vaping products that are “bubblegum flavoured” and featuring cartoons, isn’t meant to target adults.

Alcohol in the family home

More than 15,500 children aged 8-18 years across a representative sample of 255 primary and post-primary schools in Ireland took part in the survey.

The survey is part of a global study that takes place every four years. This is the sixth time Ireland has taken part, and it’s the first time questions around bullying were asked.

Among the most stark findings were that the majority of children who drink alcohol source it from their home.

Of the children who reported having had alcohol, 54% received alcohol from a parent, guardian or sibling or reported taking alcohol from the family home, with a further 30% sourcing it from friends.

More than six in 10 children (64%) surveyed said they had never had an alcoholic drink, an increase of 6% the last survey was carried out in 2014.

Overall, 17% of children reported having been ‘really drunk’ (down from 21% in 2014) and 6% of children reported being drunk in the last 30 days (10% in 2014). 

Bullying and having sex 

Harris said he was also concerned about the five-percentage-point increase in children who say they’ve been bullied, with this more likely to happen in real life than online: 

It raises questions in terms of how we make sure we engender in our kids the importance of being kind to each other.

Three in 10 (30%) of children reported being bullied in the past couple of months (up from 25% in 2014), while 16% reported being cyberbullied.

Overall, there was a 4% drop in life satisfaction and happiness to 43% from 47% in 2014. The report found that girls are significantly less likely to report being happy than boys.

Almost one-quarter (24%) of 15-17 year-olds reported every having had sexual intercourse, down from 27% in 2014. However, of those reporting having had intercourse, use of the birth control pill was down by 4% to 29% in 2018, while there is a 9% drop to 64% in those reporting use of condoms.

Food and diets 

The study also contains information on physical activity and the consumption of sugary sweets and drinks. While 52% of children reported exercising four or more times per week, 9% of 10-17 year olds reported being physically inactive. Both figures are static since 2014 and are broadly in line with the findings of other studies.

In terms of food, 23% of children said they consumed fruit more than once a day (unchanged from 2014), 21% said they consumed vegetables more than once a day (slightly down from 22% in 2014), 21% said they eat sweets more than once a day (down from 27% in 2014) and 7% said they drink soft drinks daily or more often (down from 13% in 2014).

Overall, 12% of children reported never having breakfast during weekdays (13% in 2014). Girls, older children and children from lower social class groups were more likely to report never having breakfast during weekdays.

Almost one in five (19%) of children reported ever going to school or to bed hungry because there was not enough food at home (22% in 2014). Boys, younger children and children from lower social class groups were more likely to report ever going to school or to bed hungry.

Overall, 15% of children reported trying to lose weight (16% in 2014). Girls, older children and children from lower social class groups were more likely to report trying to lose weight.

Harris said ahead of the launch: “Given the damaging effect that alcohol can have on the growing brain, the reduction in children trying alcohol and children reporting having been drunk is welcome.

“However, I am struck by the finding that by far the most common source of alcohol for children is within their family home. This is an issue that all of us, as parents and adults in the lives of young people, need to reflect on.

We need to change our culture around alcohol in Ireland, if we are to reduce the corrosive effects alcohol has on so many young lives.

The Irish study was commissioned by the Department of Health and carried out by the Health Promotion Research Centre at NUI Galway.

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