Drug and Alcohol Abuse among Teens Is Actually Decreasing

Drug and Alcohol Abuse among Teens Is Actually Decreasing

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Could it be that the years and years of drug and alcohol education programs like D.A.R.E. are actually having the desired effect on teens? It certainly looks that way, at least according to a report released last week by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). According to this study, the rates of abuse for alcohol, prescription painkillers (opiates) and cigarette smoking all declined in 2014. Only weed smoking remained steady and—perhaps unsurprisingly—“vaping” (e-cigarettes) picked up steam.

How Low Can We Go?

Dubbed “Monitoring the Future” (MTF), the study interviewed 41,675 eighth, 10th and 12th grade students from 389 public and private schools and asked them to report on their drug use across three time periods: lifetime, past year and past month. The declines in 2014 follow a two decade trend, and the five year pattern on “real” cigarette smoking should give everyone but the tobacco companies a reason to celebrate: there’s been close to a 50 percent drop in smoking among middle and high school students. Both cigarette smoking and drinking are actually at their lowest levels since 1975, when the study was first conducted, so government officials are taking a well-deserved bow and stressing the need for the continuation of the education policies.

“This year’s Monitoring the Future data show promising signs on the declining rates of adolescent substance use, and reinforce the need to continue efforts on prevention, treatment and recovery,” said National Drug Control Policy Acting Director Michael Botticelli in a release. “We know that the best way to reduce drug use is to prevent it from ever starting.”

Vaping May Look Stupid But They Still Do It

The good news: Smoking is way down. The bad news (I think—health effects are still being determined): Vaping is way up. In the past five years, daily cigarette smoking among eighth graders dropped to 1.4 percent from to 2.7 percent; for 10th graders, 3.2 percent from 6.3 percent; and for high school seniors, to 6.7 percent, from 11.2 percent five years ago.

Vaping is such a new phenomenon that it was just added to the study in 2014, but the study reports that past-month use by eighth graders is 8.7 percent, for 10th graders is 16.2 percent, and for 12th graders is 17.1 percent. I must admit that I find the thought of 13-year-olds with cigarette holders in their mouths ridiculous. But still, it’s probably a lot healthier than cigarette smoking, and they won’t have to cough up a lung like I did every morning before I quit.

Booze Abuse Declining, But Binging Still Popular

Alcohol use declined slightly from last year, but more encouraging was the five year drop in eighth, 10th and 12th graders who reported boozing in the last month, which went from 14.9 percent, 30.4 percent and 43.5 percent respectively in 2009 to 10.2, 25.7, and 39.2 percent last year. Binge drinking (consuming five or more drinks in a row at least once in the two weeks preceding the survey) dropped from 22 percent in 1997 to 12 percent for all three groups combined, but one in five high school seniors are still binge drinking pretty consistently. There was also a category for “extreme binge drinking” detailed in a second release issued by the University of Michigan, which indicates that there’s also been a drop since 2005 for those who consume 10 or more drinks (11 percent to seven percent in 2014), and from six percent to four percent for 15 or more drinks in one sitting (or falling off the bar stool, as the case may be).

Opiate Use Down, Adderall Staying the Same

More encouraging news in the pill popping category, too: prescription pain pill (opiate) abuse went from 7.1 to 6.1 percent in a year, and that was down from a high of 9.5 percent in 2004. The abuse of cough/cold medicines containing dextromethorphan (DXM) among eighth graders (nobody told me about “robo-tripping” in junior high, sigh) dropped to two percent, which is nearly a 50 percent plunge (3.8 percent) from five years ago.

Still, the non-medical use (which is defined as crushing and snorting way more than a prescribed dose) of the stimulant Adderall remains steady, with 6.8 percent of high school seniors apparently becoming hyper-focused on their studies and possibly attempting to take apart and put back together a bunch of computers and cell phones.

They Use Baked Goods to Get Baked

The numbers for marijuana use remained unchanged from last year, with the survey reporting past month use of weed among eighth graders at 6.5 percent, 10th graders at 16.6 percent and 12th graders at 21.2 percent.

Interestingly, in the states that have passed medical marijuana laws, 40 percent of 12th graders who reported using marijuana in the past year said they consumed it in food products (edibles) versus 26 percent in non-medical marijuana states.

The report also indicates that high school seniors do not think that occasional marijuana smoking is harmful, with only 16.4 percent saying occasional use puts the user at great risk, compared to 27.4 percent five years ago.

So Is This Good News or Bad News?

While the study results are hopeful from a trends standpoint, there’s still an awful lot of kids getting way fucked up, something that even the researchers concluded.

“In sum, there is a lot of good news in this year’s results, but the problems of teen substance use and abuse are still far from going away,” said Lloyd Johnston, the study’s principal researcher in a press release. “When things are much improved is when the country is most likely to take its eye off the ball, as happened in the early 1990s, and fail to deter the incoming generation of young people from using drugs, including new drugs that inevitably come along.”

As Virginia Slim used to say, You’ve come a long way, baby. But with the caveat: we still have a ways to go.

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Johnny Plankton

Johnny Plankton is the pseudonym for a freelance business and comedy writer/editor (and recovering alcoholic) who lives in Boston. He is also a grateful member of America’s largest alcohol recovery “cult” as well as Al-Anon.