Intelligent teens more likely to use alcohol and cannabis

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Academically gifted teens are more likely to use cannabis and alcohol than their less gifted counterparts, according to a study published in BMJ Open.

Researchers collected data for 6059 young individuals from the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England which included information on academic ability around age 11 y and health behaviours during early and late adolescence.

Children with high academic ability had an increased risk for occasional (relative risk [RR], 1.25) and persistent (RR, 1.83) drinking during early adolescence, and persistent drinking (RR, 2.28) during late adolescence. Similarly, children with high academic ability were more likely to use cannabis occasionally (RR, 1.51) and persistently (RR, 1.91) during late adolescence. Interestingly children with high academic ability were less likely to smoke cigarettes (RR, 0.62) compared with the low ability children. These associations were likely to persist into adulthood.

The authors believe that cognitive ability may positively influence the ‘openness to experience’ which could encourage children with high academic ability to try out alcohol or cannabis. Another plausible explanation is the higher acceptability of able children by older peers who have access to these substances.

"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," the authors said.

"The persistence of substance use into adulthood negates the hypothesis that high academic ability is associated with temporary experimentation with substance use," they added.