Intended for healthcare professionals

Clinical Review ABC of adolescence

Substance misuse: alcohol, tobacco, inhalants, and other drugs

BMJ 2005; 330 doi: (Published 31 March 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;330:777

This article has a correction. Please see:

  1. Yvonne Bonomo,
  2. Jenny Proimos


    Misuse of alcohol, tobacco, inhalants, and other drugs is now widespread among adolescents internationally and causes substantial health problems in this group. This article explores the misuse of these substances.


    Alcohol and tobacco are by far the most commonly used substances by young people and result in 95% of morbidity and mortality related to substance misuse in this age group. Despite the public and political concerns about use of illicit drugs, such drugs are much less commonly used than alcohol and tobacco, although they may pose more serious immediate health risks. The “gateway” theory about drugs (that tobacco and alcohol may lead on to use of illicit drugs) does not always hold in adolescence. Although it is true that almost all users of illicit drugs have used tobacco and alcohol, most adolescents who regularly use tobacco and alcohol do not progress to using illicit drugs.


    Proportions of 11-15 year olds in England who reported drinking during preceding week, 1988-2002. Adapted from Boreham et al. Smoking, drinking and drug use among young people. London: Stationery Office, 2002


    Alcohol consumption typically begins in adolescence. About a fifth of 12-13 year olds report drinking alcohol; the proportion increases to 40-50% by age 14-15 and to over 70% by age 17. In the United Kingdom the proportion of adolescents reporting weekly drinking has changed little over the past 15 years. On average, about 40% of young people report binge drinking; the main reasons given for bingeing are enjoyment and the fact that the alcohol helps them to be more sociable.

    Adverse effects of cannabis misuse

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    The proportion of young people who smoke regularly rises from about 1% at age 11 years to 26% of girls and 21% of boys at age 15 in the United Kingdom. Overall, smoking rates among young people have changed little in the past 20 years, although rates among girls overtook those among boys from the mid-1980s.


    Cannabis is the most common drug of misuse in Western countries. Cannabis use usually starts at about 16-17 years old, with 30-50% of this age group reporting that they have at least tried cannabis. Regular use, however, is less common, with about 10% of adolescents reporting weekly use and about 3% daily use.


    Percentage of 11-15 year olds in England who used drugs during preceding year, by type of drug and age, 2002. Class A drugs are heroin, methadone, cocaine, ecstasy, LSD, injected amphetamines. Boreham et al. Smoking, drinking and drug use among young people. London: Stationery Office, 2002

    Classification of harmful drugs in United Kingdom

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    Throughout the article, when the term substance misuse is used, it refers to the whole group of substances (alcohol, tobacco, inhalants, and other drugs)


    Prevalence estimates vary, but as many as 5% of young adolescents in the general population may be misusing paint, glue, or petrol. This form of substance misuse is most common among younger high risk adolescents, as these substances are readily available and their purchase and possession are not illegal.

    Desired and adverse effects of class A drugs and their administration route

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    Trajectories of substance misuse

    Not all young people who experiment with substances proceed to levels that bring health problems. Some use certain substances for recreational purposes, whereas others use them for self medication (for example, for insomnia or emotional distress). Recurrent problems related to substance misuse (such as difficulties with family or friends and school attendance) most commonly arise as a result of increased frequency of high dose use. A minority of adolescents with problematic high dose use progress to clinical harm and dependence.


    It is important with adolescents to consider where he or she lies in the spectrum of misuse

    Risk factors

    A number of individual and environmental factors influence substance misuse by adolescents. Many of them “cluster” within an individual. Consideration of protective as well as risk factors is clinically useful, both in the assessment of risk in a young person and in the development of a management plan.

    Risk and protective factors for substance misues in adolescents

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    Assessing substance misuse

    Establishing rapport

    Successful work with adolescents, including dealing with their substance misuse, requires the development of a trusting relationship and good rapport, particularly in terms of confidentiality. In allowing the young person to participate in management options, the practitioner also needs to feel confident that the young person understands the consequences of his or her health choices.

    Non-specific signs of substance misuse

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    Taking a history

    In primary care, specific screening questionnaires for substance misuse have not been shown to be any more effective than taking a broad medical and psychosocial history. A psychosocial history includes information about the social, cultural, educational, and vocational background of the adolescent as well as potential mental health problems. As concurrent misuse of more than one substance is common among adolescents, it is important to ask specifically about each substance, including alcohol and tobacco. A urine screen may be a useful tool to assess the range of substances used in the previous days.

    When vaporised and inhaled, paint, glue, and petrol rapidly result in intoxication and euphoria

    Assessing dependence

    It is important to identify when the substance misuse has led to dependence and when it has not. Dependence is likely when the young person experiences (a) difficulty controlling (that is, limiting) use of the substance despite considerable negative consequences; (b) tolerance to the substance, needing increasing amounts to get the same effect; and (c) withdrawal symptoms when not using that substance.

    History and physical examination in assessment of substance misuse in adolescents

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    Managing substance misuse

    Helping a young person to reduce or stop substance misuse requires patience, an open minded and non-judgmental approach, and an understanding of the stages of change in human behaviour. Doctors can help facilitate change, but only the individual can change his or her behaviour.

    Specific signs of substance misuse

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    Stages of change

    Behaviour change takes time. Change passes through several stages that have been well described (Prochaska, 1991; see Further Reading box).


    Keeping in mind the process of change is integral to working with adolescents

    Preventing substance misuse by adolescents

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    Many young people who smoke tobacco or who often have drinking binges have not seriously considered changing. Consultations therefore can involve general discussion with the young person about his or her smoking or drinking, without the assumption or expectation that there will be an immediate change in current pattern of misuse. Motivational conversations about the benefits and risks of change provide important opportunities for advising young people what the potential harms of substance misuse are, how to recognise escalating use, and which strategies are useful for avoiding these adverse outcomes. This can help young people to move from the precontemplation stage to the contemplation stage.

    Topics for motivational conversations in drug and alcohol work with young people

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    Treatment options

    Once the young person decides to take action on his or her substance misuse, options for management include (a) counselling, including brief therapy such as cognitive behaviour therapy; (b) drug withdrawal or “detoxification” either in a residential setting or as an outpatient; (c) pharmacotherapy (preferably after consultation with a drug and alcohol specialist); and (d) rehabilitation through an outpatient programme or in a residential setting. These interventions are used in varying ways and in differing contexts of substance misuse in young people. It has not yet been clearly established which strategy or approach is the best. Harm reduction strategies, which aim to minimise harm while reducing use, are an important part of the overall strategy to reduce drug related harm.

    Comorbidities of substance misuse

    As well as working with the young person to move him or her towards reduced substance misuse, primary healthcare practitioners need to monitor medical issues—from nutrition and sexually transmitted diseases to HIV screening and mental health concerns.

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    Harm reduction strategies may include encouraging moderation as well as abstinence; providing information on safe levels of alcohol consumption; advising on hazards of drinking and driving; providing information on health risks of drugs; advising not to share needles; and giving phone helplines and and other information sources

    Setting realistic expectations

    Managing substance misuse in adolescents requires patience because complex behaviours and emotions take time to change and usually follow a fluctuating course, with frequent relapses. Positive reinforcement through comments on any change in substance misuse behaviour, however small, can be valuable in continuing to motivate the individual.

    This is particularly important in the context of relapses. Substance misuse usually follows a chronic relapsing course, yet relapses are rarely anticipated. Some young people may expect one admission to a detoxification unit to be sufficient to “cure” them of their drug habit. Reassurance that relapse is normal reduces the sense of failure that potentially undermines any motivation to continue.

    Reminding the adolescent of previous successes and exploring with them what they understand to be the cause of the relapse is important. This may help them to understand patterns in their behaviour, which they can modify in the future. In cases of severe substance dependence, medically supervised withdrawal followed by rehabilitation, either in a residential setting or as an intensive outpatient programme, are indicated.


    An important part of managing chronic substance misuse includes reintegration into education and employment and into healthier alternatives to substance misuse, such as sport and other activities or hobbies.

    Further reading

    • Hawkins JD, Catalano RF, Miller JY. Risk and protective factors for alcohol and other drug problems in adolescence and early adulthood: implications for substance abuse prevention. Psychol Bull 1992;112: 64-105.

    • Prochaska JO. Assessing how people change. Cancer 1991;67: 805-7.

    • Kandel D, Logan J. Patterns of drug use from adolescence to young adulthood: I. Periods of risk for initiation, continued use, and discontinuation. Am J Public Health 1984;74: 660-6.

    • Yamaguchi K, Kandel DB. Patterns of drug use from adolescence to young adulthood: II. Sequences of progression. Am J Public Health 1984;74: 668-72.

    • Joint Working Party of the Royal College of Physicians and the British Paediatric Association. Alcohol and the young. London: RCP, 1995.

    • Goldenring JM, Cohen E. Getting into adolescent heads. Contemporary Paediatrics 1988;5: 75.

    This is the eighth in a series of 12 articles

    The photograph is reproduced with permission from Sutton-Hibbert/Rex.

    The ABC of adolescence is edited by Russell Viner, consultant in adolescent medicine at University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Great Ormond Street Hospital NHS Trust (rviner{at} The series will be published as a book in summer 2005.


    • Competing interests None declared.

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