Teenagers who drink alcohol or smoke have arteries that are beginning to stiffen by the age of 17 – boosting their risk of heart attacks and stroke.
Researchers found a combination of the two vices caused greater arterial damage than drinking or smoking separately.
But the University College London team also discovered that if teenagers stopped smoking or drinking, their arteries returned to normal.
Arterial stiffness indicates damage to the blood vessels, which raises the risk of heart problems in later life, such as heart attacks and stroke.
Researchers found a combination of the two vices causes greater arterial damage than drinking or smoking separately
Researchers analysed data from 1,266 teenagers over a five-year period between 2004 and 2008.
Participants provided details of their smoking and drinking habits at 13, 15 and 17, to divide them into different brackets based on how frequent they smoked or drank.
Heavy smokers counted as having smoked more than 100 cigarettes in their lifetime, moderate 20-99, while light smokers counted as fewer than 20.
Heavy drinkers counted as more than 10 drinks on a typical day they were drinking alcohol. Medium counted as between three and nine drinks, while light was classed as fewer than two drinks.
One drink equated to 8g of alcohol – roughly a third of a pint of beer, according to the study published in the European Heart Journal.
Aortic stiffening was then assessed using a Vicorder device to measure carotid-femoral pulse wave velocity – the speed at which the arterial pulse propagates through the circulatory system.
Professor John Deanfield, who led the study, told The Guardian: ‘This is the sort of pattern of drinking that is common in young people and the smoking was light.
‘So this is applicable probably to the behaviour of many young people in the population today.’
Heavy smokers had an average increase of 3.7 per cent in the stiffening of their arteries, compared to light smokers.
IS THE END OF SMOKING ‘IN SIGHT’ IN THE UK?
The end of smoking is finally ‘in sight’, officials claimed in June 2017 following figures that suggested another drop in rates across the UK.
Just one in six adults now regularly light up cigarettes – with 680,000 having given up the habit completely in 2016.
The numbers of smokers dropped from 19.9 per cent in 2010 to just 15.5 per cent in 2016 in England alone, according to data from the Office for National Statistics.
Across all ages smoking prevalence is in decline, with the largest fall in 18-to-24 year olds, while e-cigarette use is on the rise in this age group.
Duncan Selbie, chief executive of Public Health England, said the UK has the second lowest smoking rate in Europe after Sweden, which proves that the Government’s tobacco-control policies are effective.
Teenagers who tended to binge drink had an average increase of 4.7 per cent in the stiffening of their arteries, compared to light drinkers.
Binge drinking was defined as consuming more than 10 drinks in a typical drinking day, with the aim of becoming drunk.
Teenagers who were both heavy smokers and heavy drinkers had an average increase of 10.8 per cent in the stiffening of their arteries, compared to those who had never smoked and low alcohol consumers.
Senior author Professor John Deanfield said: ‘We found… drinking and smoking in adolescence, even at lower levels compared to those reported in adult studies, is associated with arterial stiffening and atherosclerosis progression.
‘However, we also found that if teenagers stopped smoking and drinking during adolescence, their arteries returned to normal.’
He added that this suggests that ‘there are opportunities to preserve arterial health from a young age’.
Dr Marietta Charakida, who was involved in the study, said: ‘Injury to the blood vessels occurs very early in life as a result of smoking and drinking and the two together are even more damaging.
‘Although studies have shown teenagers are smoking less in recent years, our findings indicated approximately one in five teenagers were smoking by the age of 17.
‘In families where parents were smokers, teenagers were more likely to smoke.
‘Governments and policy-makers need to devise and implement effective educational strategies, starting in childhood, to discourage children and teenagers from adopting smoking and bad drinking habits.
‘They should also be told about the benefits of stopping these unhealthy behaviours.’