Overall Youth Drug Use Down in 2006, But Survey Sees Trouble Brewing with Inhalants, Prescription Drugs, Smoking

The latest Monitoring the Future drug use survey numbers are out and much of the news is good:

The survey of 50,000 8th-, 10th- and 12th-graders found that the overall percentage of U.S. youths using alcohol or other drugs declined modestly in 2006, continuing a decade-long trend. Since the mid-1990s, past-year use of marijuana has fallen 36 percent among 8th-graders, 28 percent among 10th-graders, and 18 percent among 12th-graders. That led Bush administration drug czar John Walters to cite a “substance-abuse sea change among American teens.”

“They are getting the message that dangerous drugs damage their lives and limit their futures,” said Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).

Use of marijuana, the nation’s most commonly used illicit drug, has been the main focus of the ONDCP’s antidrug media campaign. Not surprisingly, federal officials this week celebrated the fact that past-month use of marijuana reported by MTF survey participants has fallen 26 percent since 2001, from 16.6 percent of teens in 2001 to 12.5 percent in 2006. NIDA Director Nora Volkow called this finding “great news.”

Some of the researchers are expressing concern about some of the findings:

The University of Michigan, which produced the report, took a more nuanced view, noting that while there was little evidence of increased drug use, reported overall declines in adolescent drug use were relatively small, and that use of many drugs — including inhalants, LSD, powder cocaine, crystal methamphetamine, heroin, and club drugs like Ketamine, Rohypnol, and GHB — did not decline at all.

Lloyd Johnson, Ph.D., principal investigator of the study, expressed particular concern about a decline in perceived risk of using inhalants. Use of inhalants did not increase in 2006, according to the study, but inhalant use has been rising among American youth in recent years. “Perceived risk is often a leading indicator of changes in actual use,” said Johnston. “So when we see a change like this, we take it as an early warning of trouble ahead.”

Misuse of prescription drugs, which also has risen sharply in recent years, did not increase in 2006, but remained at “unacceptably high levels,”… About 9 percent of 2006 survey respondents said they had used prescription narcotic drugs like OxyContin and Vicodin within the past year, and between 4 and 7 percent of 8th- to 12th-graders said they had used over-the-counter cold medicines — typically containing dextromethorphan — to get high.

University of Michigan researchers also sounded an alarm about youth smoking, saying the MTF findings indicate that the trend toward lower smoking rates among children in their early and middle teens has ended. While current daily smoking has fallen by half among 12th-graders and more than half among 8th- and 10th-graders since the mid-1990s, no further declines were reported in the 2006 survey among 8th- and 10th-graders (daily smoking declined slightly among 12th-graders, from 13.6 percent in 2005 to 12.2 percent in 2006).

Perceived risk of smoking also has leveled off, which researchers said could be due to slackening public attention and publicity about the dangers of smoking. On the other hand, lifetime use of cigarettes has declined by about half among 8th-graders, by 40 percent among 10th-graders, and by 30 percent among 12th-graders since the mid-1990s. Overall smoking rates among all three grades are at an all-time low, and disapproval of smoking among teens is still rising among teens.