Extensive and persistent efforts to prevent substance abuse are likely behind declines in the use of illicit drugs such as Ecstasy and consumption of alcohol and tobacco among teens, data from the 2002 Monitoring the Future Study show.
The findings from the annual survey of eighth, 10th, and 12th graders were released at a December press conference in Washington, D.C.
Researchers at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research began conducting the survey in 1975 to measure self-reported drug use and perceived risk of drug use among high school students.
In spring 2002, researchers surveyed 43,700 students, including 15,500 eighth graders, 14,700 10th graders, and 13,500 12th graders at 394 private and public secondary schools across the United States.
Ecstasy use, which had been climbing since 1996 when researchers first included it in the survey, dropped among students at all three grade levels.
For instance, the proportion of seniors who reported using the "club drug" at least once in the preceding year peaked in 2001 at 9.2 percent, and 7.4 of percent seniors used Ecstasy last year.
Glen Hanson, D.D.S., Ph.D., acting director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which funds the survey, explained the reasons behind the turnaround in usage rates at the press conference. "Attitudes toward this drug are changing, and attitudes are often the harbinger for change in rates of use."
The 2002 survey found that 52 percent of 12th graders believe people are "at great risk" for harming themselves by trying Ecstasy—an 18 percent jump since researchers first posed the question to seniors in the mid-1990s.
One of the more common drugs of abuse, marijuana, lost popularity among students last year, but only among 10th graders did the decrease reach statistical significance. About 30 percent of the 14,700 sophomores used marijuana at least once during the preceding year—down from the 1997 peak of 34.8 percent.
The percentages of students who used any illicit drug during the past year in the eighth grade (17.7 percent) and 10th grade (34.8 percent) fell slightly to match the lowest levels reported since 1993 and 1995, respectively.
The use of several drugs, including heroin, cocaine, and steroids, remained steady between 2001 and 2002. Rates neither rose nor fell significantly, according to study results. About 5 percent of seniors reported using cocaine during 2001 and 2002.
Alcohol and tobacco are also declining in popularity among these adolescents. Alcohol use dropped by 2 to 3 percent for each of the three grades from 2001 and 2002. In 2002, 71.5 percent of seniors, 60 percent of sophomores, and 38.7 percent of eighth graders said they had consumed alcohol in the previous year.
Researchers saw the most dramatic declines in cigarette use, especially for young students. Smoking rates among eighth graders in 2002 (10.7 percent) are just half of what they were in 1996.
Between 2001 and 2002, the proportion of students who reported ever having smoked fell about 4 percent to 5 percent in each of the three grades surveyed.
Principal investigator Lloyd Johnston, Ph.D., attributed a number of reasons to the drop, such as the avalanche of lawsuits against and negative publicity about the tobacco industry, which has resulted in fewer cigarette ads.
He also pointed out that attitudes toward smoking among students are changing. "When you become a smoker, you make yourself less attractive to the majority of adolescents of the opposite sex—75 percent of our young people said they would prefer to date nonsmokers," Johnston said.
Regarding the overall decreases in drug and alcohol use from 2001 to 2002, Johnston wondered whether the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, may have had a "sobering" effect on the nation’s young people, though there are not yet any data to support this hypothesis.
The attacks have also been linked to increases in certain types of mental disorders and chemical dependency in New Yorkers, according to researchers at the New York Academy of Medicine. However, Johnston said the population he studied is fundamentally different.
He told Psychiatric News, "It is possible a shock like 9/11 could have opposite and anomalous effects on people at two ends of the drug-using spectrum."
For example, one sample in New York involved adults "who may already have developed a pattern of using substances to cope with life’s vicissitudes" and "in whom drug use might be increased with additional stress."
The Monitoring the Future Study, in contrast, samples youth "who have not yet started or are at the beginning stages of drug involvement—and are therefore more likely to have their use motivated by sensation seeking and social partying." The shock resulting from the terrorist attacks, he speculated, might cause such youth to be deterred from pursuing such potentially harmful activities.
Charles Curie, head of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), said the effects of prevention efforts launched at the national level by the Bush administration are taking hold at the local level in communities around the nation.
"It is gratifying to see the president’s national drug control strategy. . .is beginning to take hold, and our investments in partnership with states, communities, parents, schools, and faith-based organizations are beginning to pay off," he said at the press conference.
He named SAMHSA’s State Incentive Grant Program and its National Registry of Effective Prevention Programs as examples of how such partnerships fund and keep track of successful substance abuse prevention programs.
"At NIDA, we will continue our efforts to improve prevention strategies through research," said Hanson. "To keep drug use trends moving in the right direction, we must all remain vigilant and continue to work toward improving and adopting science-based strategies to accelerate the progress we’ve already made."
More information about the 2002 Monitoring the Future Study is posted on the Web at monitoringthefuture.org. ▪