Fewer teens are using drugs and alcohol than their counterparts did in the 1990s, nationwide and also in Kentucky

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

A new national study shows teen drug and alcohol use are at their lowest rates since the 1990s, a trend that is also seen in Kentucky’s teens.

Graphic from The Washington Post

The national survey of about 50,000 high school students found that “considerably fewer teens reported using any illicit drug other than marijuana in the prior 12 months — 5 percent, 10 percent and 14 percent in grades 8, 10 and 12, respectively — than at any time since 1991,” says the news release.

The findings come from the annual University of Michigan Monitoring the Future survey, which tracks substance use trends among students in 12th, 10th and 8th grades. It is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Teen alcohol and cigarette use are also at historic lows. Overall, of the students surveyed in the 2016 national survey, almost 37 percent had drank alcohol in the previous year, compared to the high of 67 percent in 1991.

And though the measures aren’t exactly the same, the every-other-year Youth Risk Behavior Survey shows the percentage of Kentucky’s high school students who have ever drank alcohol is also decreasing, from 78.4 percent in 1997 to almost 56.8 percent in 2015. This also held true for 8th graders, dropping from 44.3 percent in 2009, the earliest data available, to 33.5 percent in 2015.

These drops also hold true for cigarette use. In 1991, 63 percent of 12th graders in the national survey had smoked cigarettes at some point in their lifetimes, dropping to 28 percent in 2016.

The YRBS reports higher numbers for Kentucky’s teens in this measure, but like the national numbers they are trending down — from 78.9 percent of 12th graders reporting that they had ever smoked cigarettes in 1997, the earliest data available for this measure, to 49.5 percent in 2015. Eighth graders who have ever smoked cigarettes also dropped, from 47.2 percent in 2009 to 29.8 percent in 2015.

And though the national survey found teen use of electronic cigarettes had declined for the first time since researchers began tracking it in 2011, e-cigs remain more popular than traditional cigarettes, having increased 900 percent in use among youth in the past five years. This has prompted the surgeon general to issue a report that calls for a “crackdown on the devices,” according to HealthDay News.

“We know enough right now to say that youth and young adults should not be using e-cigarettes or any other tobacco product, for that matter,” Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy told The Washington Post. “The key bottom line here is that the science tells us the use of nicotine-containing products by youth, including e-cigarettes, is unsafe.”

“From 2015 to 2016, the percentage of adolescents who vaped in the last 30 days declined from 16 percent to 13 percent among 12th ­grade students, from 14 percent to 11 percent among 10th ­grade students, and from 8 percent to 6 percent among 8th grade students,” researchers said in a separate news release. “Each of these declines was statistically significant.”

Kentucky’s YRBS started tracking teen use of vapor products in 2015 and found that 41.7 percent of the state’s high school students had ever used an electronic vapor product, with 23.4 percent of them reporting they had vaped in the last 30 days, considered current users. For comparison to the national data, 26 percent of Kentucky’s 12th graders had vaped in the 30 days prior to the survey, almost 19 percent of 10th graders; and 15.5 percent of 8th graders.

graphic from U.S. News

As states slowly begin to legalize the medicinal and recreational use of marijuana, use of the drug among teens continues to be a concern, though the national report found that since 2013 the rates have been trending down.

The survey found that marijuana use in the past year declined among 8th and 10th graders, but remained consistent among 12th graders, with 9.4 percent of 8th graders, 24 percent of 10th graders and 36 percent of 12th graders reporting they had used marijuana in the past year. Combined, the survey found that marijuana use started to decline in 2013, when the rate was almost 26 percent. The current overall rate is almost 23 percent.

This trend could not be explained by Dr. Nora Volkow of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. She told U.S. News. ““We had predicted based on the changes in legalization, culture in the U.S. as well as decreasing perceptions among teenagers that marijuana was harmful that [accessibility and use] would go up. But it hasn’t gone up.”

In Kentucky, the YRBS didn’t see much change in the state’s high school student who had ever used marijuana between 2013 and 2015, 34 percent and 33.1 percent respectively. Nor did it see any real decrease in those who reported having used marijuana 30 days prior to the survey between 2013 and 2015, 17.7 percent and 17.2 percent respectively. However, 8th grade students who reported ever using marijuana dropped from 16.8 percent in 2013 to 13.3 percent in 2015.

“Every time a state considers rolling back marijuana prohibition, opponents predict it will result in more teen use,” said Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project, a legalization advocacy group, told The Washington Post in a statement “Yet the data seems to tell a very different story. There has been a sea change in state marijuana laws over the past six years and teen usage rates have remained stable and even gone down in some cases.”

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