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Teens Smoking Fewer Cigarettes, More Marijuana

New Survey Also Shows a Troubling Rise in Use of Synthetic Drugs K2 and Spice
By Rita Rubin
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Dec. 14, 2011 -- Fewer teens than ever are smoking cigarettes, but marijuana use has steadily increased over the past five years, according to a new nationwide survey.

In addition, alcohol use by teens is at its lowest level in 15 years, according to the “Monitoring the Future” survey.

In its 37th year, the annual survey polled about 47,000 eighth, 10th, and 12th graders about their use of alcohol, as well as other drugs both legal and illegal. The survey, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, or NIDA, is conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan.

Daily marijuana use was the highest in 30 years, NIDA Director Nora Volkow, MD, noted at a news conference. More than 6% of high school seniors reported using it every day. In addition, Volkow said, the percentage of teens who think marijuana is risky continues to decline.

White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske blamed the increase in marijuana use partly on the growing number of states that have legalized medical marijuana.

“We face a very difficult message as adults when we see marijuana being advertised as medicine when it has not gone through the FDA process,” Kerlikowske said at the news conference.

K2 and Spice

A related “problematic” issue, Volkow said, “is the emergence of synthetic cannabinoids.” The active ingredient in marijuana is one such type of compound.

Volkow said she was surprised at the “extremely high” percentage of 12th graders who reported using the synthetic drug -- best-known by the brand names K2 and Spice -- in the previous year. The survey shows that more than 11% of 12th graders said they had used it in the past year.

According to a prepared statement by Kerlikowske, “K2 and Spice are dangerous drugs that can cause serious harm.”

Synthetic cannabinoids, sold in smoke shops and gas stations, circumvented the Drug Enforcement Administration because they weren’t the exact same cannabinoid found in marijuana, Lloyd Johnston, PhD, who has served as principal investigator of the survey since its inception, said at the news conference.

In February, though, Johnston said, the compounds were added to the list of “controlled,” or tightly regulated, substances. Because the 2011 survey was conducted at around the same time, Johnston said, it’s too soon to tell whether tighter regulation of synthetic cannabinoids has led to a decline in use by teens.

Tobacco Use

Meanwhile, daily cigarette use by teens peaked in the mid- to late 1990s, according to the survey, and among those smoking now, fewer than 2% of 10th graders reported smoking a half pack or more per day.

Volkow called the decline in smoking cigarettes “remarkable.” As a result, not only will fewer Americans die of smoking-related diseases down the road, Volkow said, but fewer teens are likely to go on to abuse other drugs.

Still, she said, “we cannot become complacent” because some teens are turning to other forms of tobacco.

For example, said Howard Koh, MD, MPH, assistant secretary for health for the Department of Health and Human Services, this year’s survey suggests more than a quarter of 12th-grade boys are using small cigars. However, Koh noted, this spring the FDA announced its intention to extend its jurisdiction over tobacco products to more than just cigarettes.

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