Girls, 12, smoke and drink alcohol
SMOKING and drinking among 12-year-old girls is on the rise, a large-scale survey of New South Wales high schools has revealed.
Overall, drug use among the student population is falling, which has pleased health authorities - but the pre-teen group is bucking this trend.
The study of 6000 students found the number of cannabis smokers had almost halved in six years.
Nine per cent of students admitted to having smoked pot in the previous month, although 21 per cent had tried it at some point.
Use of hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine also dropped, but ecstasy use increased slightly, with 4.5 per cent of students admitting they had taken it.
The survey, conducted by NSW Health and the Cancer Council every three years, is the most comprehensive snapshot of student drug use in the state.
The 6000 teenagers who took part attend government, Catholic and independent schools.
Among the findings was that 44 per cent of 12-year-olds and almost 60 per cent of 13-year-olds had drunk alcohol in the past year.
Regular drinking by girls aged 12 to 15 has risen since the 1999 survey.
Twelve per cent of 12-year-old girls admitted having had a drink in the previous seven days.
In comparison, drinking among older teenage girls and boys fell during the same period.
As for smoking, 12-year-old girls stood out as the only age group of either sex to record an increase in cigarette use over the past four years.
Health authorities said the trend on smoking and drinking among the youngest teens, particularly girls, was a concern.
"Although it's a good-news story for smoking overall, it is a concern and we are taking steps to address that," NSW Health acting tobacco health manager Julie-Anne Mitchell said.
"We're honing in on that age group in junior high school, and hopefully we'll see a change in that trend in four years' time."
Ms Mitchell said there would also be a renewed focus on prosecuting retailers for selling single cigarettes, after the survey revealed that this practice was continuing.
Twenty-two per cent of teenagers bought cigarettes from retail outlets such as petrol stations or supermarkets, and a third of respondents said they had never been asked to provide identification.
NSW Health drug and alcohol centre director David McGrath said it was difficult to prevent young teenagers drinking without widespread cultural change, but strategies developed after last year's alcohol summit would have an impact in coming years.
Mr McGrath said the welcome news was the fall-off in cannabis use, which he attributed to a growing awareness of the dangers of the drug.
"The way it is perceived now is different from 20 to 30 years ago. There's a realisation is that it's a very different drug," he said.
Lara Fraser, 14, said she knew some people in her year who took drugs - and some who had had to have their stomachs pumped.
"I think the guys feel more obliged to do it," she said.