13 Sobering Facts About Teen Substance Abuse

Sep 12, 2012

13 Sobering Facts About Teen Substance Abuse

A new report finds that 76 percent of high school students have used tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs, and one-fifth of them may be addicted. These alarming figures highlight the urgent need for parents and communities to help troubled teens.

Teen substance use is an epidemic of greater proportions than depression, bullying, and obesity, according to a new report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University in New York City. CASA interviewed more than 2,500 high school students, parents, and school personnel, analyzed thousands of studies, and interviewed 50 leading experts in a broad range of fields to produce the comprehensive report, which unearthed some shocking statistics.

Among the findings: While the percentage of teens who smoke, drink, or use illegal drugs has declined since 1999, the number of youths who still do so is dangerously high. Teen substance abuse is a widespread problem that has far-reaching effects, considering that 9 out 10 adult addicts began using before they turned 18, and 25 percent of Americans who began using any addictive substance before age 18 are still addicted.

Here, a look at the study’s most important findings.

High-School Drug Users Are Becoming Addicts

Of the 76 percent of high school students who have used tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, or cocaine, one in five meet the medical criteria for addiction. That number is particularly troubling considering that the younger the brain, the greater the risk of moving from drug use to drug addiction. If substance abuse occurs when the brain is more fully developed (usually by the mid-twenties), the risk of becoming addiction is reduced.


Teens Are Starting Early

The average age when youths begin using substances is a far cry from the legal one. The report shows that most teens first partake of alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs at some point between 13 and 14 years of age, which makes them six and a half times more likely to develop a substance use disorder as those who wait until they’re 21 or older.


Rx Abuse: The New Gateway Drugs?

Fifteen percent of high school students have misused controlled prescription drugs, including pain relievers (opioids and narcotics), stimulants, tranquilizers, and sedatives. Prescription opioids like OxyContin and Percocet are the most widely misused controlled drugs, and 90 percent of students who abuse these prescription drugs have also used other addictive substances.

But drug abuse isn’t limited to the medicine cabinet. Ten percent of high school students have used inhalants (carbon-based substances like glue, lighter fluids, and paint), 7 percent report having used Ecstasy (the street name for MDMA, a drug that’s chemically similar to methamphetamine and mescaline), and 6 percent have tried cocaine.

Teen Smoking Is Widespread

Almost half of high school students have smoked cigarettes. Of those, 92 percent have also used another addictive substance. Teens who light up before age 15 are significantly more likely to also drink alcohol, smoke marijuana, and abuse prescription drugs than those who wait until after age 21. Research shows that teens can show symptoms of nicotine dependence after just one or two instances of smoking.


Your Teen’s Probably Been Drunk

Teens don’t know from moderate drinking. While they reportedly drink less frequently than adults, high school students down more drinks when they imbibe than any other age group – 4.9 drinks on average. Thirty-four percent of high school students binge drink (have five or more drinks of alcohol in a row). Most high school students drink: 63 percent of freshmen say they’ve had alcohol; by the time senioritis kicks in, 80 percent have. Among children who have ever had a drink of alcohol, 68 percent have used another addictive substance.


Girls and Boys Are Equal Abusers

When it comes to current users of addictive substances, 46 percent of both girls and boys are likely to partake, a figure that has declined since 1999, when 58 percent did. While boys and girls are just as likely to smoke cigarettes, girls are more likely to drink and misuse prescription drugs than boys, who are more likely to have used marijuana.


More White Students Are Using

White students are more likely to report being current substance users (49 percent) than Hispanic students (46 percent), black students (40 percent), and students of other races and ethnicities (37 percent). Black students in grades 6 through 12 are more likely to believe that using tobacco is wrong than white students, the report found. But white students are likelier to believe smoking marijuana is wrong than black students.


Teens Think Marijuana Is Harmless

About one-third of high school students have used marijuana, and 25 percent of students consider it a harmless drug. In fact, 17 percent say they even think of marijuana as medicine, which may stem from parental influence. The report found that 21 percent of parents characterize marijuana as a harmless drug, which couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Regular marijuana use can increase the risk of respiratory illnesses, including chronic cough, bronchitis, and lung infections. Heavy or chronic marijuana use is associated with a host of cognitive impairments and with structural and functional brain changes.


Substance Use Affects Report Cards

Teen tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana users are at least twice as likely as nonusers to have poor grades. Even more alarming: Teen marijuana users are about twice as likely as non-users to drop out of high school.



Alcohol Triggers Risky Teen Behavior

Teen drinkers put themselves in dangerous driving and sexual situations. One in 10 high school students reported driving after drinking alcohol in the past month, according to the report. One in five sexually active high school students report having used alcohol or other drugs before their last sexual experience, and the same number said they had unprotected sex after drinking or using other drugs.

Just one such mistake can have devastating ripple effects: Drunk driving even one time can lead to disability or death, and one night of drinking can result in a dangerous fight, an unplanned pregnancy, or infection with a sexually transmitted disease.


Substance Abuse May Be Learned at Home

Home may be where these drinking and drug use behaviors start. Nearly half of children under age 18 live in a household where an adult engages in risky substance use; 45 percent live with a parent who is a risky substance user. Seventeen percent of children live with a parent who has a substance abuse disorder.


Locking the Alcohol Cabinet Isn’t Working

More than two-thirds of 10th graders said it would be easy for them to get cigarettes, alcohol, or marijuana. Forty-five percent of teens said they got their alcohol from family or at home. Forty-two percent of eighth graders who smoke said they purchased their own cigarettes from a store in the past month; 65 percent of senior smokers had done so. When asked where they’d get marijuana if they had to, 24 percent of teens said they’d ask a friend, while 13 percent said they’d get it from school.


Parent, Especially Moms, Makes a Difference

Eighty percent of high school students surveyed said that their parents’ concerns, opinions, or expectations influence if and how much they smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, or use drugs. More than half of teens said that parents should be actively engaged in their child’s life, set a good example for their teen, and explain the negative consequences of substance use.

When it comes to having these tough talks, the report found that teens prefer to hear from Mom. Most teens (72 percent) would rather talk to their mothers about personal issues or problems, compared to just 39 percent who said they would prefer to talk to their fathers.


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