A new survey of US teenagers shows that overall, smoking and illicit drug use has fallen over the last ten years, with substantial drops in the eighth graders but there are still some worrying trends such as increase in ecstasy use and continued abuse of prescription drugs.

The survey, the results of which were announced at a news conference at the White House, yesterday, Tuesday 11th December, was carried out by researchers from the University of Michigan and is called the The Monitoring the Future project, now in its 33rd year. It was sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The researchers surveyed 48,025 students in grades 8 (mostly 13 to 14 year olds) , 10 (mostly 15 to 16 year olds), and 12 (mostly 17 to 18 year olds) in 403 public and private US schools. Survey participants reported their use of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes across three time periods: past month, past year, and lifetime. The survey also asked students about their attitude toward substances.

The biggest fall was found in 8th graders, 13 per cent of whom reported using an illicit drug at least once in the last year in 2007, which is nearly half the 24 per cent who reported doing so in 2006.

8th graders also showed a significant long term fall in past-year alcohol use, down to 31.8 per cent compared with 46.8 per cent in 1994. Lifetime and past-month daily smoking among this group has also dropped considerably in the last year. Daily cigarette smoking went down from 4 to 3 per cent (it peaked at 10.4 per cent in 1996).

Also down among 8th graders is annual prevalence of marijuana use, from 11.7 per cent in 2006 to 10.3 per cent in 2007 (it peaked at 18.3 per cent in 1996).

The 2007 results could signify a cultural shift among teenagers, with a different attitude to smoking and using illegal drugs, said the NIDA in a prepared statement.

NIH Director, Dr Elias A. Zerhouni said:

“Over the last decade, there has been a large science-based effort throughout the public health community to drive down the rates of smoking, illicit drug, and alcohol use among teens.”

“These results show us we are definitely seeing a decline in substance abuse among our youngest and most vulnerable teens, and we are committed to continuing our efforts,” added Zerhouni.

NIDA director, Nora D Volkow said:

“We are especially heartened to see the decrease in smoking among eighth graders, and will be watching the next two years closely to see if this decline will stick as these kids get older.”

“If this change in attitude is carried with them throughout the rest of their teen years, we could see a dramatic drop in smoking-related deaths in their generation,” she added.

However, other results are not so dramatically pleasing.

Past-year use of marijuana among 10th and 12th graders remained steady, although there has been a slow downward trend in illicit drug use that is driven by a decline in reported marijuana smoking. Among 10th graders marijuana use is steady at 24.6 per cent, down from a peak 34.8 per cent in 1997, while among 12th graders it is holding at 31.7 per cent, after a 1997 peak of 38.5 per cent.

A worrying area of the survey concerns prescription drug use, which remains high with no significant drop in non-medical use.

Vicodin is still one of the most commonly abused prescription drugs among 12th graders. 1 in 10 of this group reported non-medical use of Vicodin in the past year.

This is the first year the survey has pulled together data for all prescription drugs as a measurable group. This shows that 15.4 per cent of high school seniors reported non-medical use in the past year of at least one of the prescription drugs monitored by the survey.

The survey now monitors the use of: Vicodin, OxyContin and other opiates; Ritalin and other amphetamines; sedatives, barbiturates, tranquilizers, and over- the-counter drugs, such as cough syrup.

Binge drinking, or consuming 5 or more drinks in a row within the last two weeks (a very dangerous pattern of alcohol consumption), has not budged. Figures for this pattern of abuse have remained at worrisome levels for all three student age groups. Also recent data on alcohol consumption have remained at a steady high level for 10th and 12th graders.

The survey also pinpoints another area of concern: the “softening of attitudes towards MDMA (ecstasy) and LSD” in the younger groups. For the third year now, there has been a decrease in the perception of how harmful MDMA is among 8th graders. And in 10th graders, there has been a decrease in the perception of how harmful LSD and MDMA is, as well as a decrease in the disapproval toward taking LSD.

This is in addition to an increase in past-year use of MDMA among 10th and 12th graders in the last two years.

Volkow said they will be monitoring the trends in MDMA and LSD use in future years:

“This decrease in both disapproval and perceived harmfulness among eighth graders shows us that we need to be vigilant in our educational efforts with every drug in each succeeding generation,” she said.

Click here for more information on the Monitoring the Future survey.

Written by: Catharine Paddock