Free school meals associated with greater substance use among children


A new study, published in the Journal of Public Health, has found that receiving free school meals and a feeling of wellbeing are associated with substance use in children and young people. 

Young people who report being happy or are able to communicate with their family rather than friends are less likely to use substances. But older age and receiving free school meals are associated with an increased likelihood of substance use.

The study analysed a national, anonymous, school-based cross sectional survey for children aged 10 and 11 (year 6), 12 and 13 (year 8), and 14 and 15 (year 10).  The data included the responses of 3903 children from two local authorities and represents 1.2% of the national sample, with approximately equal distribution across all year groups.

The main finding of the study was that age was the most significant predictor of substance use. Compared to children in year 6, year 8 children were between two and six times more likely to misuse substances and year 10 children between eleven and twenty-nine times more likely.

Smoking was found to be associated with the use of other substances. The number of children smoking more than one cigarette a week was much higher amongst those who were regular users of drugs and alcohol, compared to children with no experience of drugs and alcohol. Smoking more than one cigarette was also negatively associated with a sense of happiness and being able to talk to their parents.

Children who reported feeling happy were 18.4% less likely to have tried smoking, 44.8% less likely to have used alcohol, and 6.4% less likely to have tried drugs. Three-quarters of the participants who felt happy said that they could talk to their parents, while only half of those who said they did not feel happy could do so. Interestingly, children who reported having a better relationship with their friends were 40% more likely to use substances than those who had poor relationships.

In the study, approximately one in five children (18.2%) were eligible for free school meals. Children eligible for free school meals were more likely to report being unhappy than children who were not eligible, felt less able to talk to their friends or parents, and were less likely to say they had one or more good friends.

One third (31.6%) of children eligible for free school meals smoked at least once, compared to one fifth of children not eligible. Just over one in four (25.9%) who reported drinking alcohol were drunk once or more often in the last 4 weeks, in comparison to one in five (19.5%) of their peers who did not receive free school meals.

The study showed that children in years 8 and 10 eligible for free school meals were twice as likely to have tried drugs, compared to children who did not receive free school meals.

The results showed a gender variation in substance use, with 23.5% of girls reporting trying a cigarette in comparison to 20.5% of boys, although there was no significant difference in those that smoke more than one cigarette a week. 

Boys were significantly more likely to have tried both alcohol and drugs, with 4% reporting having an alcoholic drink and twice as many reporting experimentation with drugs. Importantly, this general trend was consistent across all age groups with the exception of alcohol use in year 10.

In year 10, Girls were 3% more likely than boys to have tried alcohol. They were also more likely to have been drunk in the preceding four weeks, with almost twice as many girls in year 10 – 19.5% compared to 11.5% - reporting being drunk at least three times. Differences in subjective wellbeing were also found, with 3% of girls feeling less able to talk to their parents and 7% reporting feeling unhappy.

Report author, Siobhan Farmer, said: "Our findings show that a sense of wellbeing and the use of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes are associated with each other.

"The connection between substance use and free school meals also suggests that policies need to address income inequality and environmental factors that affect children’s use of drugs.

"Our research suggests that addressing income inequality and environmental factors may be an essential adjunct to intervention in children to reduce inequalities associated with substance use and enhance the health and wellbeing of young people in the UK.”

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