Efforts to curtail a surge in drug and alcohol abuse among youth in the
1990s appear to be rolling back their usage rates, while older Americans are
showing increasing rates of such abuse, according to new federal data.
Results from the 2007 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH),
released in September, included a finding that illicit drug use overall
declined among adolescents aged 12 to 17, from 11.6 percent in 2002 to 9.5
percent in 2007. ("Current use" is defined as use in the past
month.) The rate of current marijuana use among adolescents aged 12 to 17
dropped from 8.2 percent in 2002 to 6.7 percent in 2007. In addition, the
estimated number of American adolescents aged 12 or older who used
methamphetamine for the first time dropped from 299,000 in 2002 to 157,000 in
"Drug use among youth and young people is shockingly down,"
said Eric Broderick, acting administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental
Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), at a press conference marking the
release of the drug-use data.
The reductions in drug use were touted by federal officials as a major
improvement from the rising rates of drug use among adolescents found in
The findings of the SAMHSA survey (formerly called the Household Survey)
are based on interviews of a random sample of 67,500 people. The survey
results are considered the primary-source data on the extent of illicit drug,
alcohol, and tobacco use in the noninstitutionalized U.S. population aged 12
and older, according to federal health officials.
In contrast, the survey also found that illicit drug use in the month prior
to the survey interview among Americans aged 50 to 54 had increased from 3.4
percent in 2002 to 5.7 percent in 2007. Similarly, among people aged 55 to 59,
illicit drug use in the month before the subjects were surveyed increased from
1.9 percent in 2002 to 4.1 percent in 2007.
The increase among people in their 50s was attributed to the rising numbers
of the post-World War II population cohort dubbed the Baby Boomers. They have
historically had high rates of substance abuse, starting in the 1960s.
"We had the largest exposure to underage illicit drug and alcohol use
of any age cohort before or since," Broderick said about his fellow
Tackling this generation's early exposure and lingering acceptance of
substance abuse as a "legitimate" recreational activity requires
increased effort to integrate substance abuse and mental health screening and
treatment into primary health care, according to federal health officials.
Broderick emphasized that there are effective treatments available for
substance abusers of any age, and at any age family, friends, and clinicians
need to help them seek the care they need.
Increased intervention efforts by clinicians and those who know people with
untreated substance abuse problems also can help convince the large number who
need help to seek it. The survey estimated that 19.5 million people with
substance use problems don't plan to seek assistance.
"That is something we have to address moving forward," said
John Walters, director of the White House Office on National Drug Control
Although most categories of drug use declined, the nonmedical use of pain
relievers slightly increased in the study period. The survey results estimated
that 4.4 million people aged 12 and older were current nonmedical users of
prescription pain killers in 2002, which increased to 5.2 million people in
In addition to prescription pain reliever abuse among adolescents, young
adults also were affected. The survey found current use of prescription pain
relievers among young adults aged 18 to 25 increased from 4.1 percent to 4.6
percent over the same five years.
The increases in the abuse of pain killers was particularly troubling,
according to federal antidrug officials, because the survey found that most
nonmedical users of pain relievers reported obtaining the drugs from a single
"Clearly we have work to do among doctors and patients to stem the
tide of illicit use of prescription drugs," Walters said.
The problem is complex. Among the 57 percent of survey respondents who
described nonmedical use of a prescription pain reliever stolen from a friend
or relative, 80 percent said the friend or relative had obtained the drug from
a single doctor. The finding indicated to federal officials that
doctor-shopping by pain-killer abusers may be a smaller problem than theft of
legitimately prescribed pain relievers.
H. Westley Clark, M.D., director of SAMHSA's Center for Substance
Abuse Treatment, said physicians could help stem the increase in the
nonmedical abuse of pain relievers through increased efforts to limit
prescriptions and amounts of prescriptions to appropriate conditions. Patients
also should be encouraged to promptly dispose of unneeded medications in an"
environmentally appropriate" manner that prevents drugs from
ending up in the water supply.
Meanwhile, among the troubling trends revealed by the survey was that
adolescent girls aged 12 to 17 have pulled even with boys in their rates of
substance abuse. Educators need to address this trend by tailoring their
prevention messages to address the specific peer-acceptance and
dieting-related pressures that push girls into substance abuse, Walters told
The mental health section of the annual survey found that the rate of
adults seeking mental health care has remained fairly stable since 2002. About
13 percent of adults reported seeking any type of psychiatric treatment in the
five years beginning in 2002, while 10 percent to 11 percent obtained
prescription medication to treat psychiatric illness, and about 7 percent used
The rate of adults seeking care for depression dropped significantly from
2006 to 2007. Included in this reduction was the rate of adult women who had a"
major depressive episode" and sought care, which dropped from 74
percent in 2006 to 68 percent in 2007. However, Clark told Psychiatric
News that the finding was likely a statistical anomaly that was not a
trend seen in the preceding years and won't be borne out over a longer