Substance use and sexual risk behaviour affect young people’s current and future health and wellbeing in many high-income countries. Our understanding of time-trends in adolescent health-risk behaviour is largely based on routinely collected survey data in school-aged adolescents (aged 15 years or less). Less is known about changes in these behaviours among older adolescents.
We compared two cohorts from the same geographical area (West of Scotland), surveyed in 1990 and 2003, to: describe time-trends in measures of smoking, drinking, illicit drug use, early sexual initiation, number of opposite sex sexual partners and experience of pregnancy at age 18-19 years, both overall and stratified by gender and socioeconomic status (SES); and examine the effect of time-trends on the patterning of behaviours by gender and SES. Our analyses adjust for slight between-cohort age differences since age was positively associated with illicit drug use and pregnancy.
Rates of drinking, illicit drug use, early sexual initiation and experience of greater numbers of sexual partners all increased significantly between 1990 and 2003, especially among females, leading to attenuation and, for early sexual initiation, elimination, of gender differences. Most rates increased to a similar extent regardless of SES. However, rates of current smoking decreased only among those from higher SES groups. In addition, increases in ‘cannabis-only’ were greater among higher SES groups while use of illicit drugs other than cannabis increased more in lower SES groups.
Marked increases in female substance use and sexual risk behaviours have implications for the long-term health and wellbeing of young women. More effective preventive measures are needed to reduce risk behaviour uptake throughout adolescence and into early adulthood. Public health strategies should reflect both the widespread prevalence of risk behaviour in young people as well as the particular vulnerability to certain risk behaviours among those from lower SES groups.