Smoking, drinking, and cannabis use are fairly common among
teenagers. Brainy teens may be less likely to smoke, but more likely to drink
alcohol and use cannabis, than their less academically gifted peers,
suggests research published in the online journal BMJ Open.
These patterns persist into adulthood, and would seem to refute the
notion that academic prowess is associated with a greater tendency to
'experiment' for a brief period, suggest the researchers. And the evidence suggests that these behaviors boost the
risk of immediate and longer term health problems.
‘Brainy teens may be less likely to smoke, but more likely to drink alcohol and use cannabis, than their less academically gifted peers.’
But the data on potential links between cleverness and substance use
are somewhat mixed, and no study has tracked patterns with use of all
three substances from early adolescence into early adulthood.
In a bid to rectify this, the researchers used data from a
representative sample of more than 6000 11 year olds from 838 state, and
52 fee-paying, schools across England.
The teens' use of tobacco, alcohol, and cannabis, obtained
through questionnaire responses, was regularly tracked until they
reached the ages of 19-20.
Depending on their answers, use of tobacco and alcohol was
categorized as persistent and regular; occasional and regular; and none.
Alcohol use was further quantified by the number of times respondents
had got drunk-with more than 52 times in a year categorised as
Cannabis use was categorised as early (13-17) or late (18-20) and as occasional or persistent.
Academic prowess was defined by results achieved in Key Stage 2, a
national test taken at the age of 11, which assesses ability in English,
maths, and science.
During their early teens, brainy pupils were less likely to smoke
cigarettes than their less academically gifted peers, after taking
account of potentially influential factors. And they were more likely to
say they drank alcohol during this period too.
They were also more likely to say they used cannabis, but this
wasn't statistically significant. But those of average academic ability
were 25% more likely to use cannabis occasionally and 53% more likely to
use it persistently than those who were not as academically gifted.
During their late teens, brainy pupils were more than twice as
likely to drink alcohol regularly and persistently than those who were
not as clever. These patterns were similar, but weaker, when those of
average and low academic abilities were compared.
But academic prowess was associated with a lower risk of hazardous drinking.
As for the use of cannabis, clever pupils were 50% more likely to
use this substance occasionally and nearly twice as likely to use
persistently than those who weren't as clever. Similar patterns were
seen for those of average academic ability.
This is an observational study, so no firm conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect.
And the results may not be applicable to pupils in fee-paying
schools as a full set of data was only available for a third of the
teens attending these schools, say the researchers.
They highlight other caveats, including the lack of detail on
quantities of substances typically consumed, and the absence of data on
cigarette smoking after the age of 16.
Nevertheless, they say: "Our finding that adolescents with high
academic ability are less likely to smoke but more likely to drink
alcohol regularly and use cannabis is broadly consistent with the
evidence base on adults."
And they offer various possible explanations, including the link
between braininess and openness to experience, and a more
affluent/highly educated family background, which may make it easier to
get hold of alcohol, for example.
But they conclude, the fact that alcohol and cannabis use among
brainy pupils persisted into early adulthood, provides "evidence against
the hypothesis that high academic ability is associated with temporary
experimentation with substance use."