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Cigarette and alcohol use at historic low among teens

December 20, 2011

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Balintfy: An annual survey of eighth, 10th, and 12th-graders is showing good signs.

Volkow: The most positive news has to do with the very low rates of smoking that we are seeing among teenagers when compared with the prior years

Balintfy: Dr. Nora Volkow is an institute director at the NIH. She says that cigarette use among teens is at its lowest since the survey started in 1975.

Volkow: This really illustrates how prevention campaigns can have a big, big impact in terms of one of the behaviors that constitutes a serious public health problem.

Balintfy: Dr. Volkow adds that reducing smoking among teens is important because research shows that smoking in adolescence significantly increases risk of becoming addicted to nicotine, but also because exposure to nicotine may prime the brain to be more sensitive to the rewarding effects of other drugs.

Volkow: So by decreasing the number of kids exposed to nicotine it's a win-win because on the one hand we are going to prevent the adverse medical effects, but on the other one, we may be doing a prevention against substance abuse later on in life.

Balintfy: Other good news from the national NIH-funded survey is that teen drinking patters are changing. Again Dr. Volkow.

Volkow: Daily drinking has decreased by 50% from 1996, and binge drinking has decreased by 30% also for that time period. Again, extremely important because drinking accounts for one of the main causes of morbidity and mortality among teenagers because of the association of accidents and mortality while driving under the effects of alcohol.

Balintfy: Despite the alcohol and cigarette declines noted in the survey, use of marijuana has shown some increases in recent years and remains steady. For example, Dr. Volkow points out that 6.6 percent of 12th graders report smoking marijuana daily – that's actually one in 15 high school seniors.

Volkow: And knowing that marijuana intoxication interferes with the ability to learn and memorize, one can clearly predict that these very high rates of daily consumption are going to be associated with an impaired educational performance.

Balintfy: Another major concern from the survey is about the use of synthetic marijuana, known as K2 or spice. Included in the survey for the first time in 2011, already 11.4 percent of 12th-graders reported past year use.

Volkow: I was certainly very surprised because this is a new drug. We first heard about it in 2008 and 2009. So to get so rapidly such high rates of utilization among 12th graders when there's really very little information with respect to its toxic effects is worrisome. And what it does tell me is it highlights an urgency to create educational campaigns that alert teenagers, their parents and the public at large about what these drugs are really about.

Balintfy: Dr. Volkow warns that synthetic marijuana or spice can be addictive and dangerous. Severe medical consequences such as heart attack, irregular heartbeat and psychosis have been associated with its use. She adds that parents should not be complacent when it comes to teen use of alcohol and drugs.

Volkow: The sense of "No, this is not going to happen to my kid; it's going to happen to someone else but not mine" is an incorrect way to start. All of the adolescents are at great risk of experimenting with drugs, and even if parents have had a close dialogue with them, the kids are good students, while those are protective effects, they do not necessarily guarantee that they will completely protect an adolescent.

Balintfy: In addition to maintaining a dialogue with their children, Dr. Volkow also recommends parents be alert to personality or behavior changes in their teenagers.

Volkow: And also, parents many times dismiss the use of alcohol and they say, "Well, after all, it's a legal drug." Or even sometimes for cigarettes, "After all, it's a legal drug." Well, they have to be cautious because what we are now understanding first of all is that the effects of drugs, whether it's legal or illegal, on an adolescent brain are different from those of an adult brain because the brain of the adolescents is much more plastic. It has not been fully developed and therefore may be more sensitive to some of the effects of drugs of abuse including those of illicit substances.

Balintfy: This goes for prescription medications as well says Dr. Volkow. The survey also showed mixed news regarding in the non-medical use of prescription drugs like the opioid painkillers Vicodine and OxyContin, as well as non-medical use of the ADHD medicines Adderall and Ritalin. For more information on the 2011 Monitoring the Future Survey, visit www.drugabuse.gov. This is Joe Balintfy, at the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland.

This page was last updated December 2011

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