In the latest Monitoring the Future survey of teenage substance abuse, cigarette smoking and alcohol use have declined to the lowest levels in 2 decades, but marijuana abuse—which had dropped steadily since the mid-1990s—appears to have stopped falling.
About 15 percent of students in the 8th, 10th, and 12th grades had abused one or more illicit drugs in the month prior to answering the 2008 edition of the annual survey. The rate is similar to that of 2007, but 25 percent lower than in 2001. In all cases, the higher the grade, the greater the prevalence of illicit drug abuse.
The past-month cigarette smoking rate in all three grades combined was 12.6 percent, a 7 percent decline since 2007. Past-month alcohol use also dropped by 7 percent. Smoking and drinking rates are substantially lower than in 2001. NIDA officials credited prevention efforts for the drop in smoking and drinking.
Marijuana abuse, in contrast, was essentially unchanged from 2007. Slight increases in the 8th and 12th grades were counterbalanced by a slight decrease in the 10th grade.
Most of the good news in the 2008 survey came from 10th-graders, who reported substantial declines in all measures of drinking and drunkenness (past-month, past-month daily, past-year, and lifetime) since 2007. Their improved rates were largely responsible for driving down the overall rate across the three grades.
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The 10th-graders also reported significant declines in cigarette smoking and abuse of amphetamines, methamphetamine, and tranquilizers. Twelfth-graders reported less use of stimulants such as amphetamines, crystal meth, and crack cocaine.
"While the long-term general decline is encouraging, especially for cigarettes and alcohol, some of our other findings this year amplify our concerns for potential problems in the future—especially the nonmedical use of prescription drugs," says NIDA Director Dr. Nora D. Volkow. Abuse rates for prescription drugs, particularly narcotic pain relievers, have held steady or risen in recent years.
In the most recent survey, 15.4 percent of high school seniors said they had abused prescription drugs in the past year. Six of the top 10 drugs abused by high school seniors were prescription or over-the-counter medications, including the opioid painkillers Vicodin (abused by about 10 percent) and OxyContin (abused by about 5 percent).
Another area of concern is an apparent softening of teenagers' perceptions of the risks of certain substances. Such views often presage an increase in abuse. For example, the percentage of high school seniors who said LSD was harmful declined between 2007 and 2008, and over the same period, those who reported abusing this hallucinogen went up from 0.6 percent to 1.1 percent.
Similarly, the perceived risk of regular marijuana abuse has fallen for the past 2 years among 12th-graders and in the past year among 8th-graders, and the 2008 survey documented a slight increase in marijuana abuse by 8th- and 12th-graders. Dr. Lloyd Johnston of the University of Michigan, the study's principal investigator, is also concerned that the proportion of students in all three grades who see ecstasy (MDMA) as very risky has declined, although its abuse rate remains low.
The 2008 survey included 46,348 students in 386 public and private schools across the United States. Further information and the full text of the survey are available our Monitoring the Future Page and at www.monitoringthefuture.org.