According to results of a nationally representative sample of U.S. adolescents published in the April issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, a JAMA Network publication, the majority of teenagers have tried alcohol or experimented with drugs.

The researchers highlight that patterns of alcohol and drug use during adolescence are increasingly seen as indicators of subsequent substance abuse.

Joel Swendsen, Ph.D., of the University of Bordeaux in France and his team decided to establish the prevalence, age at onset, and sociodemographic factors related to alcohol and illegal drug use and abuse by surveying 10,123 teenagers aged between 13 to 18 years of age in the United States.

The researchers found that:

  • 78.2% of adolescents reported alcohol consumption
  • 47.1% reported drinking at least 12 drinks per year
  • 15.1% met criteria for lifetime abuse
  • 81.4% of the oldest teenagers revealed they had the opportunity to use illegal drugs
  • 42.5% reported drug use
  • 16.4% reported drug abuse

The researchers said:

“Because the early onset of substance use is a significant predictor of substance use behavior and disorders in a lifespan, the public health implications of the current findings are far reaching.”

According to the authors, 14 years was the median age at onset for frequent alcohol use or abuse with or without dependence; 15 years for drug abuse without dependence; and 14 years for drug abuse with dependence.

Age increased the probability of each stage of alcohol and drug use, although the researchers found that white or Hispanic adolescents almost always had higher rates compared with black and other racial/ethnic groups.

The researchers point out that the term “lifetime” to describe the occurrence of substance use disorders in teenagers does not imply that the disorders are long-term, given that many youths may ‘grow out of’ using harmful substances as they turn into adults.

The researchers conclude:

“The prevention of both alcohol and illicit drug abuse requires strategies that target early adolescence and take into account the highly differential influence that population-based factors may exert by stage of substance use.”

Written by Grace Rattue