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It’s a curious “megatrend” that has health experts scratching their heads: why are young Kiwis turning their backs on binge-drinking, smoking and drugs?

Researchers are now set to get to the bottom of the mystery, in a new project comparing teen perspectives from 20 years ago with those today.

The past 15 to 20 years have seen remarkable drops in rates of teen smoking and drinking here and in nearly all developed countries, in step with falls in teen pregnancy, juvenile crime and dangerous driving.

Here, teen smoking peaked in 1999, when nearly a third of Year 10 students were smoking regularly. That proportion has now plummeted to about 5 per cent.

Similarly, the prevalence of binge-drinking among secondary school students halved from 40 per cent in 2001, to 23 per cent in 2012, while lifetime cannabis use dropped from 38 per cent to 23 per cent over the same period.

More recent studies suggest that decline has continued since – with smoking and cannabis use rates dropping particularly among young Māori.

Adding to the mystery is the fact these trends haven’t been seen among adults.

In fact, they’ve largely gone the other way, with hazardous drinking and cannabis use rising substantially since 2000, and adult smoking rates falling much slower than among adolescents.

“In short, there have been large, unprecedented and youth-specific declines in substance use in New Zealand and internationally,” said Otago University public health researcher Dr Jude Ball.

“The big question is, why?”

Finding an answer was crucial, she said, as such insights were invaluable to policymakers and health advocates trying to drive further positive change.

Teen smoking peaked in 1999, when nearly a third of Year 10 students were smoking regularly. That proportion has now plummeted to about 5 per cent. Photo / Kenny Rodger
Teen smoking peaked in 1999, when nearly a third of Year 10 students were smoking regularly. That proportion has now plummeted to about 5 per cent. Photo / Kenny Rodger

Because human behaviour was so complex – and researchers focused on areas like alcohol and tobacco often tended to work in silos – Ball said it was a tricky picture to untangle.

But there were some clear theories.

“The one I’m really interested in exploring is about whether the symbolic and functional importance of substances to young people has changed,” said Ball, who is leading the new programme.

“Young people drink, smoke and take drugs for a reason. And part of the reason might be a rite of passage, symbolising maturity, or showing that you belong to a particular group of friends.

“That may have changed over time, and perhaps it’s less kind of compulsory than it seemed to be when I was at school – like, if you didn’t drink, you were some kind of loser or square.”

While recent public health efforts and interventions may have had some impact, she pointed out alcohol was just as available as it always was – and cheaper.

It was possible the shift might have come about with teens spending less time hanging out with their friends in person – and more time under their parents’ watch.

Ball suggested teens might have also found a new way to project a “cool” or grown-up identity in social media sites, like TikTok and Instagram, or through gaming.

“We know that young people are spending less time face to face with their friends,” she said.

“This often gets pinned on the rise of social media and smartphones, but the decline in substance use started long before either was around.”

Her study, supported with a $300,000 Marsden Fund grant, had a helpful resource to draw on in interview data with New Zealand youth recorded in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Otago University's Dr Jude Ball and Māori adviser Anaru Waa will interview teens about their views toward smoking, drugs and binge-drinking to find out why rates have been falling. Photo / Supplied
Otago University’s Dr Jude Ball and Māori adviser Anaru Waa will interview teens about their views toward smoking, drugs and binge-drinking to find out why rates have been falling. Photo / Supplied

“We can use this to really see how young people talk about drinking, smoking and drug use, and how that’s changed.”

With Māori adviser Anaru Waa and a Māori master’s student, Ball aimed to compare that data with interviews they’ll carry out with a cohort of young people today.

“We have a lot of really interesting questions in front of us, and right now, we don’t know the answers to a lot of them. There are lots of fascinating strands for us to explore.”

Being cool ‘now measured by follower count’

The culture shift hasn’t come as any big surprise to Erana Boyd.

While attending Auckland’s Rangitoto College, she counted only a few students who smoked or took drugs.

Instead, being cool was measured more by follower numbers on social media.

Now a public health worker for Hāpai Te Hauora, the 22-year-old said she’s been able to observe the trend from a different viewpoint.

“Smoking definitely wasn’t a big thing at our school – drinking was more popular, maybe because alcohol was a little easier to access.”

Health worker Erana Boyd, 22, said smoking wasn't popular among her old schoolmates at Rangitoto College. Photo / Supplied
Health worker Erana Boyd, 22, said smoking wasn’t popular among her old schoolmates at Rangitoto College. Photo / Supplied

She said there was binge-drinking especially at parties around ball season – but teens seemed to be more aware of the dangers now.

“A lot of it comes down to education – and we were just a lot more aware of the harms and effects of binge-drinking, including on families” she said.

“We also didn’t really feel the need to use smoking or drinking to fit in.”

She agreed social media had a large impact.

“People are interacting in person less, and they’re using their social media as a platform to be cool … like, how many followers you have can now kind of represent how cool you are.”

Still, she thought alcohol and substance abuse remained a prevalent issue for young Kiwis.

“Even though it looks like rates are decreasing, it’s definitely still an issue, especially when it comes to people coming out of high school, and going out into town on weekends.”

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