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Smoking, drinking and drug abuse decline among US teens, who prefer pot and vaping, study finds

From left, a Manhattan, a Cucumber Margarita and Tara's Bloody Mary. Drinking, smoking and drug abuse are on the decline among American teenagers, in some cases falling to the lowest levels seen in decades, according to the latest results from an annual nationwide survey. (Barbara Davidson/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Drinking, smoking and drug abuse are on the decline among American teenagers, in some cases falling to the lowest levels seen in decades, according to the latest results from an annual nationwide survey.

About 1 in 3 middle and high school students surveyed in 2017 said they had used some kind of illicit drug sometime in their life. Two decades ago, that figure was 43 percent.

Likewise, 17 percent of students surveyed in 2017 said they smoked cigarettes at least once, and 26 percent said they had been drunk. In the 1990s, those figures reached highs of 58 percent and 46 percent, respectively.

“The rates of drug use among teenagers in our country are the lowest they’ve ever been for some drugs,” said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

A notable exception to this trend is marijuana use. The proportion of teens who said they had tried it has remained steady over the last decade, even as other forms of drug use fell.

These findings were based on a survey of about 45,000 students from 380 middle and high schools across the country who participated in the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future study. Funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the study has been tracking the use of cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and other illicit substances by eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders since 1975.

A full report on the surveys conducted this year will be published by the end of April. In the meantime, here’s a look at some of the new data, which were released Thursday.


Teens have adopted a more accepting attitude toward marijuana, with 64.7 percent of high school seniors saying they disapprove of regular use. That’s down from 68.5 percent of seniors last year. In 1991, 40.6 percent of seniors said they saw “great risk” in smoking marijuana from time to time; in 2017, only 14.1 percent agreed with that assessment.

Accordingly, use among teens increased in 2017, the first time this has happened in seven years. More than one-third of high school seniors (37.1 percent) said they had used the drug at least once in the last year. So did one-quarter of high school sophomores (25.5 percent) and 1 in 10 eighth-graders (10.1 percent).

Initiatives that have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational use in many states appear to be a factor behind its rising popularity among teens. The researchers found that high school seniors were more likely to consume edible marijuana products in states where medical marijuana was legal (16.7 percent) than in states where it wasn’t (8.3 percent).

“I think if we did not have all these changes in policy and norms, we would have seen a decrease in marijuana use just like we would have seen in other drugs,” Volkow said.

Vaping is becoming a common form of marijuana use. Hardly any teens said they had ever vaped marijuana in last year’s survey; this time, 10 percent of 12th-graders, 8 percent of 10th-graders and 3 percent of eighth-graders said they had done so in the last year.

Cigarette smoking

Teens may not be scared of marijuana, but they do view cigarettes as dangerous. Just under three-quarters (74.9 percent) of 12th-graders said they thought it was dangerous to smoke a pack of cigarettes a day, and 86.6 percent said they disapprove of a daily smoking habit.

In the mid-1990s, when teen smoking was at a peak, 24.6 percent of high school seniors said they smoked cigarettes daily. So did 18.3 percent of 10th-graders and 10.4 percent of eighth-graders. In 2017, 4.2 percent of high school seniors, 2.2 percent of sophomores and 0.6 percent of eighth-graders reported a daily smoking habit.

“This is a major accomplishment, because cigarette smoking among teenagers is predictive of very adverse health outcomes,” Volkow said. Smoking also “puts them at greater risk of becoming addicted to other substances,” she said.

Nicotine vaping

Vaping appears to have replaced cigarettes as the primary nicotine delivery device for teens. At least 19 percent of high school seniors said they vaped nicotine in the last year, along with 16 percent of sophomores and 8 percent of eighth-graders.

“Vaping has progressed well beyond a cigarette alternative,” Richard Miech, a senior investigator on the Monitoring the Future project, said in a statement. He added that these figures may underestimate the number of students who vaped nicotine, since the drug may have been present in other vaping liquids without teens realizing it.

This embrace of vaping may portend a future rise in cigarette use, Volkow warned.

“Overall, the consensus is that nicotine, when you take it by vaping, is less dangerous than when you smoke combustible tobacco,” she said. “But nicotine is an addictive drug.” It will take time to see whether vaping makes teens more likely to become cigarette smokers, but early studies suggest this may be the case, she said.

Other tobacco

Increased interest in vaping appears to have cut into interest in hookah pipes. The survey recorded a steep drop in past-year hookah use, from 23 percent among all age groups in 2014 to 10 percent in 2017.

Use of snus — a moist, powdered form of smokeless tobacco — fell for all three grades combined, with 2.6 percent of surveyed students saying they had used it in the last year. Recent use of any kind of smokeless tobacco was down as well; overall, 3.5 percent of students said they used smokeless tobacco in the last 30 days.

The researchers reported that 5.4 percent of all surveyed students said they smoked flavored little cigars in the previous month, and 3.7 percent said they’d smoked regular little cigars during the same period.


A decadeslong decline in alcohol use came to a halt in 2017, with no significant change in drinking behavior for students in any grade compared with 2016.

One-third (33.2 percent) of high school seniors said they had used alcohol in the last 30 days, along with 19.7 percent of sophomores and 8 percent of eighth-graders. A considerable number of them drank to excess, with 19.1 percent of seniors, 8.9 percent of sophomores and 2.2 percent of eighth-graders saying they had gotten drunk in the previous month and 16.6 percent of seniors, 9.8 percent of sophomores and 3.7 percent of eighth-graders binge-drinking (downing five or more drinks in a row) within the two weeks before they took the survey.

That said, alcohol use is far lower than in 1991, when 54 percent of seniors, 42.8 percent of sophomores and 25.1 percent of eighth-graders used alcohol at least once in the last 30 days.


Use of prescription painkillers fell to new lows, even as the opioid epidemic continues to plague adults.

The percentage of high school seniors who said they misused OxyContin in the last year fell to 2.7 percent, less than half the number from 2005. In addition, 2.2 percent of sophomores (down from a high of 5.1 percent in 2009) and 0.8 percent of eighth-graders (down from a high of 2.6 percent in 2006) said they had abused OxyContin.

Vicodin continued to lose appeal as well. The survey found that 2 percent of seniors, 1.5 percent of sophomores and 0.7 percent of eighth-graders abused the combination hydrocodone-acetaminophen drug in the last year. Those figures are down from 10.5 percent for seniors in 2003, 8.1 percent for sophomores in 2009 and 3.0 percent for eighth-graders in 2006, and all three are lower than at any point since survey-takers began tracking Vicodin use in 2002.

These declines may be a sign that efforts to reduce the supply of excess prescription opioids are paying off, Volkow said. In 2010, more than half of 12th-graders (54.2 percent) said the class of drugs that includes opioids were either “fairly easy” or “very easy” to get; in 2017, only 35.8 percent agreed.

Other illicit drugs

Illicit drugs have become less popular across the board.

Among high school seniors, 2.7 percent said they had used cocaine in the last year, as did 1.4 percent of sophomores and 0.8 percent of eighth-graders. In addition, 1 percent of seniors, 0.6 percent of sophomores and 0.5 percent of eighth-graders said they had used crack in the previous 12 months.

LSD use was 3.3 percent among 12th-graders, 2.1 percent among 10th-graders and 0.9 percent among eighth-graders. Heroin registered barely a blip, used by just 0.4 percent of seniors, 0.2 percent of sophomores and 0.3 percent of eighth-graders.

Crystal meth was used by 0.8 percent of high school seniors, the only age group asked about this use.


© 2017 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.