High School Students Still Take Health Risks

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on May 20, 2004
From the WebMD Archives

May 20, 2004 -- The number of American high school students that engage in risky behaviors may be may falling, but a new report shows too many students are still putting their health at risk.

A new CDC survey shows a decline in the percentage of high school students that smoke, drink alcohol, and engage in violence or risky sexual behaviors during the last 12 years. But even so, researchers say there is much room for improvement.

"Too many young people still engage in activities that place them at risk for serious injury, sexually transmitted diseases (including HIV infection), and chronic disease such as heart disease and cancer," says CDC Director Julie Gerberding, MD, in a news release.

For example, the survey shows that in the 30 days preceding the 2003 survey:

  • 2.6 million high school students rarely or never wore seat belts
  • 3.1 million smoked cigarettes
  • 2.4 million carried a weapon
  • 6.4 million drank alcohol
  • 3.2 million used marijuana

In addition, in the year preceding the survey, 4.7 million high school students were in a fight.

Researchers say more than 70% of deaths among young people aged 10 to 24 years old are the result of only four, largely preventable causes: motor vehicle crashes, unintentional injury, homicide, and suicide.

Trends in Risky Behavior

The results are based on the CDC's 2003 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, which is conducted every two years among a nationally representative sample of American high school students.

The 2003 survey showed progress is being made in several areas associated with health risks, such as sexual activity, injuries and violence, and tobacco and alcohol use.

In the area of sexual activity, the survey showed improvements in several areas from 1991-2003:

  • Fewer students having sex. The percentage of high school students who reported ever having sexual intercourse fell from 54% to 47%.
  • Fewer students with multiple partners. The number of high school students who reported having had four or more sex partners fell from 19% to 14%.
  • More students using condoms. The percentage of sexually active students who used a condom during their last sexual intercourse increased from 46% to 63%.

Improvements were also found in injuries and violent behavior and substance abuse during the same time period:

  • Fewer fights. The percentage of high school students who had been in a physical fight dropped to 33% from 43%.
  • Fewer ride with drunk drivers. The percentage of high school students who rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol decreased to 30% from 40%.
  • Fewer smokers. The percentage of high school students who reported current cigarette smoking, which had increased from 28% in 1991 to 36% in 1997, dropped to 22% in 2003.
  • Fewer drinkers. The percentage of high school students who had ever drunk alcohol dropped to 75% compared to 82% previously.

For the 2003 national survey, 15,214 questionnaires were completed by students in grades nine through 12 and their responses were anonymous.