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Alcohol, Tobacco & Drugs - Teens

Alcohol, tobacco and drugs affect teenagers in different ways than adults. Learn about the affects of alcohol, tobacco and substance use on your teenagers and how to deal with it.

Alcohol and teens don’t mix

There are many reasons why teenagers should not drink alcohol or delay drinking alcohol as long as possible.
  • The teen brain is still under construction until age 24, and alcohol impairs the brain's activity and development (its effects can be even worse on teenage girls (external link).
  • Drinking alcohol regularly as a teenager can have long-term negative effects on the brain, especially for mood and impulse regulation.
  • It could critically affect teens' ability to perform tasks (e.g., driving, geometry, sports, map reading).

Cigarette smoking is the most common addiction and one of the most difficult to overcome. Research shows that tobacco is a "gateway drug" - youth who smoke cigarettes are more likely to abuse alcohol, smoke cannabis and use cocaine than those who don’t.

Exposure to on-screen tobacco use in movies can impact kids.

There are many risks associated with cannabis use among teenagers. Teens are at higher risk for cannabis related harms because their brains are still developing and going through rapid changes.

Mental health issues Cannabis use in the teenage years can lead to:
  • Long-term problems with memory, attention and thinking
  • Increased risk for anxiety and depression
  • Increased risk of developing a mental illness, such as psychosis and schizophrenia
Lung damage Like cigarettes, there are more than 400 toxins and carcinogens in cannabis smoke that damages the lungs. Lung damage can be greater because cannabis smoke is usually unfiltered, breathed deeper and held longer into the lungs before exhaling.
Dependency It’s a myth that cannabis is not addictive. According to ADAPT (local addictions treatment provider), cannabis is the most common drug of concern for clients under age 24.

Energy drinks typically contain caffeine, plant-based stimulants, simple sugars, and other additives. Energy drinks claim to boost physical and mental performance. However, too much caffeine can be dangerous and mixing it with alcohol can put teens at higher risk of alcohol harms.

  • May lead teen to drink more alcohol
  • Teens who mix are 4x more likely to binge drink
  • Will increase the risk of alcohol poisoning
  • Does not lower blood alcohol level

Alcohol is the most commonly-used drug by teens (and adults). It is a depressant that acts to slow the central nervous system. How alcohol affects an individual alcohol can vary by:

  • Gender
  • Body weight
  • How much food is in the stomach to slow the absorption of alcohol
  • How much alcohol is consumed

Binge drinking is defined as drinking for the purpose of getting drunk. It is measured as consuming five or more drinks in a short time period. Depending on gender, weight or other factors, it can take less than five drinks to reach the point of intoxication. Binge drinking has an immediate risk of harm from alcohol poisoning, injury or violence.

Binge drinking can lead to impaired judgment, difficulty concentrating, and mood changes. It can lead to physical changes such as weight gain and high blood pressure and short term physical outcomes such as being hung over and throwing up. It can also lead to alcoholism and life threatening effects such as alcohol poisoning.

It is best to encourage your teen to follow the low risk drinking guidelines and the safer drinking tips (external link.

In Canada, hosts of private parties have been held legally and financially responsible for injuries and damages that involved their intoxicated guests.

Although it's illegal for anyone under the age of 19 to drink in Ontario, some teens choose to drink. As a parent, you can:

  • Talk with them about short-term and long-term risks of drinking alcohol.
  • Encourage them to delay the start of drinking.
  • Talk to them about drinking games, which increase the risk of alcohol poisoning.
  • Advise them to consume no more than 1-2 drinks at any one time.
  • Advise them to consume alcohol no more than 1-2 times a week.
  • Recommend alcohol-free days.

Encourage your teens to follow safe drinking tips:

  • Set limits for and stick to them.
  • Drink slowly.
  • Have no more than 2 drinks in any 3 hours.
  • For every drink of alcohol, have one non-alcoholic drink.
  • Eat before and while you are drinking.
  • Read Canada's Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines (external link)-It has useful information that can apply to teens

Talk to your teens about the dangers of drinking and driving:

  • Make sure that they know that drinking and driving is illegal and unacceptable.
  • Make sure they know never to get in a car with someone who's been drinking.
  • Let them know they can call you anytime for a ride, day or night, no questions asked.
  • Tell them their safety is the most important thing to you.

Smokeless tobacco (chew, snuff, plug, dip, etc.) is no longer the stuff of pro baseball players. It is used orally and not burned. Chewing or sucking the tobacco allows the nicotine to be absorbed through the tissues in the mouth. This is not safer than smoking tobacco and is associated with numerous health problems and diseases.Males in high school are more likely to use smokeless tobacco (8.1%) vs female (2.6%). Read more about it at the Halton Parents Blog (external link).

Smoking in media

Research has shown that smoking in movies rated G, PG and 14A can influence children and teens and make them more likely to start smoking. For more information and to learn about what can be done to make a change, visit (external link).

An e-cigarette also known as a vap pen or hookah pen is a cigarette shaped canister used to simulate the sensation of smoking. A liquid filled cartridge is heated and releases vapour. First developed as a smoking cessation aid, this product has gain popularity with our teens. E-cigarettes are not regulated and Health Canada warns that they may pose health risks when vaped with or without nicotine.

E-cigarettes (external link) round out the top 5 substances used by teens in Ontario, ahead of tobacco cigarettes, waterpipes and smokeless tobacco. Use significantly increases with grade level, grade 11 students (16.1%) and grade 12 students (16.9%) are more likely to use e-cigarettes.

Talk to your kids (external link) about the harmful effects of e-cigarettes and create a smokeless environment.

Talking to your teen about tobacco

It’s never too early or late to start a conversation about smoking or tobacco products, like chewing tobacco. As their parent, you are the most influential person in your children's' lives – even when they are teens.

  • Talk about the dangers of tobacco use.
  • Be a positive role model and don’t smoke or use tobacco.
  • Create a tobacco-free environment.
  • If you do smoke or use tobacco, try to quit.

Read more about talking to teens about tobacco at the HaltonParents blog (external link).

Young people underestimate the power of nicotine addiction. It's a fact that 90% of youth still smoking by age 19 will become long-term smokers. Halton Region offers resources to help people quit smoking:

Myth Busted
What’s the big deal if teens use it? It’s just cannabis.
  • early and regular cannabis use can affect the developing brain and is related to mental health problems
  • regular cannabis use impairs thinking, attention and memory
It comes from a natural plant so it’s not harmful. Harmful effects of regular cannabis use are:
  • Respiratory damage such as increased coughing and breathing problems
  • Impacts on mental health including increased risk of psychosis
  • Damage to a developing foetus and increase a child's mental health and functioning
Cannabis is not addictive. Regular cannabis use can lead to dependency.
It’s okay to drive after using cannabis.
  • Cannabis impairs judgment and reaction time.
  • One is impaired after using cannabis and it is not safe or legal to operate a motor vehicle after using cannabis.
  • It increases the risk for injury or death.
Parents have no control over whether kids use cannabis. Parents are the most important influence on their teenage kids. You can help guide your teen by:
  • Building developmental assets
  • Monitoring and nurturing kids
  • Setting limits


The drug methamphetamine (also known as meth, speed, ice, chalk, crank, fire, glass and crystal) can produce permanent damage to the teeth and surrounding oral tissues (the slang term for this damage is "meth mouth").

Read Impacts of Meth Use (PDF file)