More than half of 15-year-olds have tried alcohol at least once and one in four have smoked cigarettes, according to data from the World Health Organization (WHO). 

According to a survey of nearly 280,000 young people, boys and girls, in Europe, Central Asia and Canada, one in five had smoked e-cigarettes in the past 30 days. 

The Health Behaviors in School-Age Children Study (HBSC) is conducted in schools every four years. The study highlighted that e-cigarette use is increasing globally.

Widespread use of harmful substances among young people in Europe is a serious public health threat, experts warn. 

"The widespread use of harmful substances among children in many countries in the European Region and elsewhere is a serious public health threat," said Dr. Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe.

"Given that the brain continues to develop until the mid-20s, adolescents need to be protected from the effects of toxic and dangerous products," Kluge said, noting that targeted online marketing of harmful products normalizes these products. 

Lithuania ranks first

"Despite declines in substance use (such as alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking) in recent years, some data suggest that the Covid-19 pandemic may have caused a new increase in use," the report said.

The rise in e-cigarette use among young people has prompted many countries to take measures against vaping, especially disposable electronic cigarettes. The UK banned these products in January. 

The country with the highest proportion of young people who had tried e-cigarettes at least once in their lives was Lithuania, where nearly 60 percent of 15-year-olds smoked e-cigarettes.

Despite this increase in vaping, alcohol was the most commonly used substance among 11-, 13- and 15-year-olds. 57 percent of 15-year-olds had tried alcohol once and nearly 40 percent said they had consumed alcohol in the month prior to the survey. 

Gender gap narrowing

Historically, substance use has been higher among boys. The survey showed that alcohol and cigarette use was more common among 11-year-old boys than among girls of the same age.

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By age 13, however, gender differences in alcohol consumption had diminished or disappeared altogether in some countries and regions. 

Among 15-year-olds, girls were recorded as using substances more often than boys. However, for cannabis consumption, young boys were more likely to use cannabis than girls. 

What can be done to reduce risks?

The report's authors recommend increasing taxes on products such as tobacco, alcohol and e-cigarettes. 

Another recommended measure is to limit the availability of substances by reducing the hours or places of sale and imposing age limits on products. 

In Europe, the most concrete examples of such policies are seen in Finland, Sweden and Norway, which have a state monopoly on alcoholic beverages above a certain percentage. 

WHO also recommends banning all flavorings in tobacco products and all forms of advertising. 

Even just delaying the age of alcohol consumption could be beneficial. Studies show that the earlier you start drinking, the more likely you are to abuse alcohol in adulthood.