A stark new report has revealed that the North East has the highest rates of experimentation with drinking and smoking among school-aged children.
Information released from the Health and Social Care Information Centre yesterday showed the region tops the league table when it comes to trying the substances among children aged 11 to 15.
Once again, a North-South divide has emerged in health inequalities and experts have blamed the Government for not protecting the young and for failing to bring in plain packaging for cigarettes and a minimum unit price for alcohol.
In the North East, 51% of pupils said they had drunk alcohol compared with only 31% in London where the proportion is lowest, combined figures for 2011 and 2012 indicate.
Boys are revealed to be most likely to drink booze in the region compared with girls, at 52% and 50% respectively.
The North East also tops the table for the proportion of school children who have smoked. As many as 30% of pupils have tried smoking, compared with 22% in London, the West Midlands and East Midlands.
For smoking, girls were more inclined to light up than boys in the North East, at 31% and 29% respectively.
However, the picture on drugs is different, where the numbers of pupils who have ever tried drugs are generally lower in the north and higher in southern parts.
The proportion of 11 to 15-year-olds who have tried drugs in the region is 16% while in London it is as high as 20%.
Boys were significantly more likely to experiment with drugs as 18% of them questioned in the area said they had tried an illicit substance while just 14% of girls admitted to doing so.
Colin Shevills, director of Balance, the North East Alcohol Office, said: “Clearly alcohol is the drug of choice for young people in the North East – and it isn’t surprising considering the alcohol industry does everything in its power to give the impression that you can’t have fun, be popular or be successful unless it is part of your life.
“It’s time the Government took responsibility for the health and safety of our children out of their hands.”
The report Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use Among Young People in England in 2012, surveyed 7,590 pupils in 254 schools in the autumn term of 2012. It documents a continuation in the long-term reductions in the rates of school children drinking, smoking and taking illicit drugs and in their tolerance for peers doing so.
Nationally, 43% of pupils had drunk alcohol, compared to 61% a decade ago in 2002.
Around 23% 11 to 15-year-olds had tried smoking compared to around 42% 10 years ago.
Fewer than one in five had tried drugs, compared to 27% in 2002.
The proportions of pupils who have drunk, smoked and taken drugs increases with age. For instance, 12% of 11-year-olds have had an alcoholic drink, compared to 74% of 15-year-olds.
Ailsa Rutter, director of Fresh said: “This survey reiterates that smoking by North East children needs tackling further. With 9,000 North East children taking up smoking each year, there are still far too many children becoming addicted to this deadly product.”
A Government spokesperson said: “Despite clear progress we know there's more that can be done to support healthy behaviours in young people, including through our plans to challenge alcohol manufacturers and retailers to increase their efforts through the Responsibility Deal; remove displays of cigarettes and tobacco to help young people resist the pressure to start smoking; and continue educating young people about the dangers of drugs through our FRANK website and programmes in schools.”