Alcohol and Cigarettes Use in Teens Declines

A national survey of students in U.S. middle schools and high schools shows some important improvements in levels of substance use. The University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future study tracks trends in substance use among students in 8th, 10th and 12th grades. Each year the national study surveys 40,000 to 50,000 students in about 400 secondary schools throughout the United States. Both alcohol and cigarette use in 2014 are at their lowest points since the study began in 1975.

All three grades showed a decline in the proportion of students reporting any alcohol use in the 12 months prior to the survey. Lloyd Johnston, the study’s principal investigator said:

“Since the recent peak rate of 61 percent in 1997, there has been a fairly steady downward march in alcohol use among adolescents. The proportion of teens reporting any alcohol use in the prior year has fallen by about a third.”

Of perhaps greater importance, the proportion of teens who report “binge drinking” in the two weeks preceding the survey, fell significantly to 12 percent for the three grades combined. This statistic is down from a recent high point of 22 percent in 1997. While this is an important improvement, roughly one in five (19 percent) 12th graders still reported binge drinking at least once in the prior two weeks.

For the three grades combined, 28 percent reported any smoking in the prior month in 1997, the recent peak year, but that rate was down to 8 percent in 2014. Furthermore, only 23 percent of students had ever tried tobacco cigarettes, as compared to 56 percent in 1998.

The importance of this major decline in smoking for the health and longevity of this generation of young people cannot be overstated,” Johnston said.

Of particular concern is the possibility that e-cigarettes may lead to tobacco cigarette smoking, and reverse this hard-won, long-term decline. More than twice as many 8th and 10th graders reported using e-cigarettes as reported using tobacco cigarettes.

Part of the reason for the popularity of e-cigarettes is the perception among teens that they do not harm health. Only 15 percent of 8th graders think there is a great risk of people harming themselves with regular use of e-cigarettes. This compares to 62 percent of 8th graders who think there is a great risk of people harming themselves by smoking one or more packs of tobacco cigarettes a day.

In recent years, the U.S. has experienced tremendous changes in public opinion toward alcohol and other drug use. Prevention through education has helped and needs to continue; declines in availability and the rise in costs may be contributing factors to the drops in teen substance use. This positive trend is one we hope will continue. The older individuals begin to use substances like tobacco and alcohol, the more likely they are to use them in moderation.