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New Youth Vices: Sugar And Sloth v. Smoke And Drink

New studies show teenagers in Europe and North America are consuming less alcohol and cigarettes than they did even a few years ago. But other problems have worsened.

Heineken or Coke, pick your poison...
Heineken or Coke, pick your poison...
Teresa Nauber

BERLIN — Each generation is wilder than the last, or at least that's the common view. But it's actually not true for today's teenagers, according to a study by the World Health Organization. In fact, it shows that today's youth smoke and drink less, continuing a downward trend that began in 2010.

In Europe and North America, 25% of kids under age 13 smoked six years ago, but today that number is down to 17%.

Drinking behavior has changed too. Not long ago, parties where teenagers would binge-drink, sometimes into a coma, was a daily occurrence. But the WHO study says that just 8% of 15-year old girls drink alcohol once a week. Among older teenagers, the number is a bit higher, with 20% saying they drink alcohol regularly.

The study Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children (HBSC) has being conducted every four years since the 1980s. The continuous downward trend of alcohol consumption is one of Germany's biggest successes, says Martin Weber, who heads the WHO's European regional office for the health of children and teenagers.

In 2003, the study showed that 40% of German 15-year old boys drank alcohol regularly, especially sickly sweet cocktails that come in bottles, so-called "alcopops." Between 2001 and 2002, their sales grew by more than 300%. In 2004, the German government enacted an extraordinary tax on alcopops as well as requiring warning decals on the bottles. Just two years later, the number of teenagers regularly drinking alcohol fell dramatically — a trend that has persisted.

When it comes to consumption of alcohol and cigarettes, Germany now ranks in the middle among more than 40 countries surveyed. But in general, fewer teenagers smoke and drink today. "The number has been cut in half over the last decade," says WHO study author Jo Inchley.

But Weber cautions that there are still too many, and it should remain a priority to keep tabs on youth drinking and smoking behavior, and intervene where and when necessary.

The European countries with the most alarming statistics are Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania, where in general, children from financially disadvantaged families drink and smoke more. "Data shows that intervention is needed in order to close the gap between the rich and the poor," says Zsuzsanna Jakab, regional director of the WHO in Europe.

More taxes, fewer soft drinks

What worries the WHO most are the many overweight children who have unhealthy diets and don't get enough physical activity. On average, only about 29% of all 15-year-old boys and 37% of all 15-year-old eat fruit on a daily basis.

And sugared drinks are one of the main reasons. A study conducted in Frankfurt am Main last December showed that overweight children are more likely to drink ice tea, soft drinks and sodas than children of healthy weights.

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Donner Kebab in Cologne, Germany Photo: Alex Kehr

In Latvia, the Ministry of Health has reacted to the problem much like Germany did with alcopops — by applying an extraordinary tax on soft drinks. The government has also banned the sales of both soft drinks and sweet and salty snacks in schools.

The numbers speak for themselves. In 2004, more than 18% of Latvian boys and 13% of its girls were drinking soft drinks daily. But now the numbers have fallen to 8% for boys and 5% for girls.

The WHO is encouraging similar policy shifts to promote physical activity. That's because young people are not only less active than they used to be, but they also participate in fewer sports as they get older, and begin to spend more time studying at home and get increasingly distracted with smartphones and social media.

Weber says sports should be a part of children's everyday life. And so he is appealing to the communities' responsibility: Cycle paths, for instance, allow children to be physically active even on their way to school.

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