Information, advice and guidance for schools on alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.

These resources may help if you're completing our understanding substances specialist or other healthy schools awards.

Definitions of drugs and substance misuse

A drug is a substance that acts on the central nervous system to cause physical, emotional or psychological change. This includes:

  • alcohol
  • nicotine
  • over the counter and prescription medicines
  • illegal drugs

We use the term substances to talk about all of the drugs in this list.

How substance misuse can impact on children and young people

Substance use by young people, even if it is occasional, always carries a risk of harm as it can:

  • interfere with adolescent brain development
  • severely damage developing organs such as the lungs, brain and liver
  • evidence also shows that substances can interfere with educational outcomes and performance (Brooks, 2013), this includes tobacco, alcohol and cannabis (Suhrcke and de Paz Nieves, 2011)

Many substances, including alcohol and cannabis, affect a young person's ability to make decisions and judge situations. This means they'll face an increased risk of:

  • accidents
  • injuries
  • being taken to hospital
  • fighting
  • getting into trouble with the police 
  • damaging or losing important belongings such as money and phones

Young people who drink alcohol are also more likely to have unplanned, unprotected sex and put themselves at risk of unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (Hingson, Heeren, Winter, and Wechsler, 2003).

Starting to use a substance during adolescence, especially before the age of 15, increases the risk of heavier, harmful use during adulthood. This includes legal substances like alcohol (Donaldson, 2009).

Young people's substance use

Drug, alcohol and tobacco use by primary school aged children is very rare and so this is a good time to ensure that prevention work is in place.

According to the Health and Social Care Information Centre (2017), the most common substances used by young people of secondary school age in England are:

  • alcohol: 44% of 11 to 15 year olds have drunk alcohol, including 56% of 14 year olds and 76% of 15 year olds
  • tobacco: 18% of 11 to 15 year olds have smoked, including 23% of 14 year olds and 36% of 15 year olds
  • cannabis: 7.8% of 11 to 15 year olds, including 9.6% of 14 year olds and 17.7% of 15 year olds
  • nitrous oxide, or laughing gas: 4% of 11 to 15 year olds, including 4.4% of 14 year olds and 7.2% of 15 year olds
  • volatile substances, for example glues or aerosols: 4.4% of 11 to 15 year olds have used these, including 3.4% of 11 year olds, 4.9% of 12 year olds, 6.2% of 13 year olds and 4.3% of 14 year olds

Other substances aren't widely used by young people. Only 1.6% of children of secondary school age have used new psychoactive substances, previously known as legal highs.

Bristol young people and substance use

According to the Health and Social Care Information Centre (2015), Bristol has very high levels of drug use and smoking among 15 year olds compared to other local authority areas in the country.

  • 11.3% of 15 year olds in Bristol smoke, compared to 8.2% in England and 7.8% smoke at least weekly
  • 18% have tried e-cigarettes, close to the national average of 18.4%
  • 17.7% of 15 year olds in Bristol say they've tried cannabis, compared to 10.7% for all 15 year olds in England
  • 8.9% used cannabis in the last month compared to 4.6% nationally
  • 66.7% of 15 year olds in Bristol who have had an alcoholic drink, higher than the national proportion at 62.4%
  • 16.6% have been drunk in the last four weeks, compared to 14.6% for England

Cannabis use in Bristol is among the highest in England.

Use of other drugs is also significantly higher among 15 year olds in Bristol. 2.5% say they've used drugs other than cannabis in the last month, compared to 0.9% for England.

Other drugs aren't specified in this research because:

  • the possible range is extremely broad
  • it may be impossible to state due to small numbers using some drugs
  • the purpose of this study is to look at risky behavior and all drug use carries risk for young people

What schools can do

The stated outcome in national policies covering drugs, alcohol and tobacco is that any work with young people that looks at these substances should aim to reduce demand for them.

This means that we should try to reduce the number of young people who have ever used drugs, alcohol and tobacco.

Reducing demand is a complex issue. Evidence suggests that schools should do this through a range of activities, including:

  • increasing parents' awareness of how important they are in influencing young people's use of alcohol, drugs and tobacco
  • providing good quality, evidence based education
  • supporting access to early intervention and effective treatment

Tobacco, alcohol, and drugs resources

Download guidance about:

The Alcohol Education Trust Go to (opens new window) is an early intervention charity that supports young people aged 11 to 25 to keep young people safe around alcohol.

The Drugs and Stuff resource pack from the Children's Public Health team includes a wide range of lesson plans and activity ideas for substance misuse education.

Drugwise Go to (opens new window) has reports and an archive of evidence based information about drugs. 

FRANK Go to (opens new window) has information about individual substances.

Mentor Adepis Go to (opens new window) has information about treatment and prevention of addiction.

Local support service

The Youth Links team at Bristol Drugs Project (BDP) Go to (opens new window) offers one to one support to young people aged 9 to 19 who are using drugs and alcohol or who are affected by a parent or carer's substance use.


Brooks, F. (2013). Chapter 7: Life stage: School Years, in Chief Medical Officer's annual report 2012: Our Children Deserve Better: Prevention Pays,ed. Professor Dame Sally C Davies. London: DH.

Donaldson, L. (2009). Guidance on the Consumption of Alcohol by Children and Young People. DH.

Health and Social Care Information Centre . (2015). Health and Wellbeing of 15 year olds in England: Findings from the What About YOUth? Survey 2014. Health and Social Care Information Centre .

Health and Social Care Information Centre. (2017). Smoking , Drinking and Dryg Use Among Young People In England , 2016. NHS Digital.

Hingson, R., Heeren, T., Winter, M. R., & Wechsler, H. (2003, January). Early Age of First Drunkenness as a Factor in College Students' Unplanned and Unprotected Sex Attributable to Drinking. Retrieved November 21, 2017, from

Suhrcke, M., & de Paz Nieves, C. (2011). The impact of health and health behaviours on educational outcomes in high income countries: a review of the evidence. Copenhagen: WHO Regional Office for Europe.