Surveys Reveal Alcohol, Drugs, and Tobacco Use Declining

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A survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse shows that e-cigarette use among teens has surpassed the use of cigarettes as traditional cigarette smoking continues to decline.

Health advocates say the e-cigarette is dangerous because it makes smoking seem acceptable, and they worry it could lead to increased tobacco smoking. However, the federal survey data did not support those concerns. Sabrina Tavernise of The New York Times writes that the survey, released this week and conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse along with the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future program, measured drug and alcohol use among middle and high school students nationwide. Participants numbered 41,000 and attended 377 public and private schools.

This was the first of this type of survey that measured e-cigarette use, which, says Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, has experienced a stunning increase in popularity. Seventeen percent of high school seniors surveyed reported using an e-cigarette in the past month. Those using traditional cigarettes numbered 13.6%. Tenth graders’ e-cigarette use was 16% and 7% for cigarettes, while eighth graders reported e-cigarette use at 8.7%, with 4% saying they had smoked a cigarette in the last month.

A 2013 survey by the CDC, which was released in November, found that e-cigarette use rose to 4.5% in 2013 from 2.8% in 2012. Middle school students’ usage, the survey found, remained at 1.1% for the same time period. These two broad, reliable federal surveys that have been taken for years, and have similar methodologies, came up with gaps in the two sets of findings. The CDC uses combined grades in their survey, while the drug abuse survey uses individual grade levels, which could account for some of the discrepancies.

At any rate, experts are at odds as far as the value of e-cigarettes is concerned. Some say they are the best thing that has happened for the 18% of Americans who still smoke and want to quit. Other experts say that people are not using e-cigarettes to quit, but to keep smoking. They also worry that e-cigarettes could be a gateway which could cause young people to begin smoking tobacco cigarettes.

But daily cigarette use among teenagers has continued to decline in 2014 and has dropped across all grades by half over the past five years. Most experts do agree that e-cigarettes are less harmful than traditional cigarettes, but the inclusion of nicotine makes the e-cigarettes addictive. Nicotine can also effect brain development and, according to some scientists, establish patterns that can make young people more susceptible to addiction to other substances.

The e-cigarette is powered by batteries and produces a vapor that is infused with nicotine, but without the chemicals and tar in traditional cigarettes, writes the Associated Press‘ Lauren Neergaard.

“I worry that the tremendous progress that we’ve made over the last almost two decades in smoking could be reversed on us by the introduction of e-cigarettes,” said University of Michigan professor Lloyd Johnston, who leads the annual Monitoring the Future survey of more than 41,000 students.

The CDC reported that there are 10 states that allow e-cigarette sales to minors. Although the Food and Drug Administration has proposed that e-cigarettes be regulated, no final rules have been established.

The drug abuse survey asked students about their opinion of the risks involved in using e-cigarettes and only 15% of 8th-graders thought that regular use of e-cigarettes was harmful, reports Tripp Mickle of The Wall Street Journal. On the other hand, 62% of 8th-grade students said smoking one or more packs of cigarettes was harmful.

“A lot of teens are using e-cigarettes and see it as a harmless form of entertainment,” said Richard Miech, a research professor at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. “They’re not aware that it can contribute to nicotine addiction.”

Legislators and public health advocates have criticized manufacturers of e-cigarettes for aiming their advertisements at young people by pushing special flavors like cherry and chocolate.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse website reports that abuse of pain relievers among teens has declined, while marijuana use rates are stable. Prescription and over-the-counter drug abuse continued to have downward trends in 2014. Students who used narcotics other than heroin in the past year numbered 6.1% of high school seniors, as compared to 7.1% a year ago, which was still much lower than the 20o4 peak of 9.5%. Vicodin usage was 4.8% for 12th graders, much lower than the 9.7% rating of five years ago.

Cough/cold medicine among eighth graders was at 2% for those using them for non-medical reasons, lower than the 3.8% five years ago. The stimulant Adderall was used by 6.8% of high school seniors — a stable rate with no increase or decrease. Past month use of marijuana rated at 6.5% for 8th graders, 16.6% for 10th graders,  and 21.2% for 12th graders. A majority of 12th graders do not think that occasional marijuana smoking is harmful.

Past year use of MDMA, ecstasy or Molly, declined among 10th graders to 2.3%, from 3.6% in 2013. The peak level was 6.2% in 2001. Inhalant use has also declined. Synthetic marijuana, also known as K2/Spice, the hallucinogen salvia, and stimulants known as bath salts have all declined in use. Alcohol use in all grades is showing a slow decline.

“We are encouraged to see a continued decrease in binge drinking among young people,” said George F. Koob, Ph.D., director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Still, nearly 1 in 5 high school seniors report binge drinking within the past two weeks, which is unacceptably high and underscores the need for underage drinking research to remain a priority.”