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Health & Parenting

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Teen Drug Use Survey Is 'Warning Sign'

Past Declines in Drug Use by U.S. Teens Are Now Leveling Off
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Dec. 14, 2009 -- Drug use among U.S. adolescents inched up between 2008 and 2009, in what federal officials are calling a troubling "warning sign" of teen substance abuse.

The results from an annual survey of U.S. teenagers show that previous declines in marijuana, alcohol, and inhalant use have largely leveled off over the past several years. Overall declines in drug use have also leveled off or ticked up since 2007, reversing a trend of less substance use by teens since the late 1990s.

About a third of high school seniors, a quarter of sophomores, and about one in eight eighth graders reported using marijuana in the past year, according to the Monitoring the Future Survey, conducted by the University of Michigan.

At the same time, about four in 10 high school seniors said they had used any illegal drug in the past year, about the same as five years ago, according to the study.

"The 2009 Monitoring the Future survey is a warning sign, and the continued erosion in youth attitudes and behavior toward substance abuse should give pause to all parents and policymakers," said Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Alcohol remains the most common drug used by U.S. adolescents; 43% of high school seniors, 29% of 10th graders, and 16% of eighth graders reported drinking in the past month. Those numbers are essentially unchanged from last year, the report concluded.

Researchers said they were concerned with an apparent "softening" in teens' attitudes about the dangers of drinking and drug use. About 45% of eighth graders say they now see marijuana smoking as potentially harmful, down from 58% in the early 1990s. Researchers reported a similar erosion in attitudes about the dangers of drinking among teens.

"Changes in these beliefs and attitudes are often very influential in driving changes in use," says study researcher Lloyd Johnson, PhD.

The survey of about 46,000 youth did show what researchers described as several encouraging signs. Cigarette smoking among eighth and 12th graders was at its lowest level since 1991, though the percentage of 10th graders who smoked ticked up slightly in 2009. And the survey showed a drop in use of methamphetamine in the past year by all grades.

Researchers said they were still disturbed by high levels of medication abuse among teens. Nearly one in 10 high school seniors reported taking the narcotic pain killer Vicodin for recreational use, and one in 20 reported using the narcotic OxyContin illegally, the report says.

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