A national survey of U.S. middle- and high-school students painted a mostly positive portrait regarding substance abuse. But one area — smoking e-cigarettes — yielded troubling results.
The University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future study showed that both alcohol and cigarette use in 2014 were at their lowest points since the study began in 1975. And use of several illicit drugs also notched declines.
But in 2014, more teens used electronic cigarettes (“e-cigs,” or “vaping,” so-called for the vapors that are emitted instead of smoke) than traditional tobacco cigarettes or any other tobacco product. It’s the first U.S. national study to show that teen use of e-cigs surpasses use of tobacco cigarettes.
The Monitoring the Future study tracks trends in substance use among students in 8th, 10th and 12th grades. It’s an annual survey now in its 40th year of 40,000 to 50,000 students in about 400 secondary schools throughout the U.S.
Here’s a breakdown of substances and survey results:
Alcohol use declined among all three grade levels. Students reporting any alcohol use in the 12 months before to the survey in the three grades combined dropped from 43 in 100 to 41 in 100, a statistically significant change. The peak year was 1997, when more than 6 in 10 respondents reported using alcohol.
And the proportion of teens who reported "binge drinking" — that is, consuming five or more drinks in a row at least once in the two weeks preceding the survey — fell significantly again this year to 12 in 100 for the three grades combined, down from a high point of 22 in 100 in 1997. But the researchers said that about 1 in 5 12th-graders still reported binge drinking at least once in the last two weeks, and some drink even more heavily.
Cigarette smoking reached historical lows among teens in 2014 for all three grades. In 1997, for the three grades combined, 28 in 100 reported smoking in the last month; in 2014, the rate was 8 in 100.
Synthetic marijuana ( also called K-2 or "Spice") is sold over the counter in many states, particularly in gas stations, convenience stores and head shops. Its synthetic chemical components of marijuana are sprayed onto shredded plant material that’s smoked. It’s an unregulated product and often is imported. It can be very potent and unpredictable in its side effects, which can be as severe as acute psychosis and heart attacks.
In 2011, 11 in 100 survey respondents reported using it, and in 2014 it was 6 in 100.
"Bath Salts," another class of synthetic drugs sold over the counter, also have declined in use, with fewer than 1 in 100 students in all three grades using them. It’s a dangerous synthetic stimulant, and apparently the substantial efforts to make them illegal are showing results.
Marijuana, after five years of increasing use among teens, declined slightly in 2014, down from 26 to 24 users per 100 teens for the three grades combined.
Daily or near-daily marijuana use also declined a bit, but it’s still high (no pun intended). About 1 in 17 high school seniors is a current daily or near-daily marijuana user, down from 6.5 in 100 in 2013.
Ecstasy (MDMA) use declined significantly in 2014. For the three grades combined use in the last 12 months dropped from 2.8 in 100 in 2013 to 2.2 in 100 in 2014. Used peaked in 2001, at 6 in 100.
Salvia, another drug used for its hallucinogenic properties, fell significantly, as it has in recent surveys. In 2009 nearly 6 in 100 12th-graders had used it in the last month; in 2014 it was fewer than 2 in 100.
Hallucinogens other than LSD, such as mushrooms (Psilocybin or "shrooms"), continues a long-term decline.
Prescription drug misuse (narcotics, sedatives, tranquilizers and/or amphetamines without medical supervision) is of considerable public health concern especially because its use increased substantially in the 1990s, then began to decline in the 2000s.
Only 12th-graders reported on their use of all of these drugs, and it declined between 2013 and 2014, from 16 in 100 to 14 in 100. In 2005, 17 in 100 indicated misuse of any of these drugs.
Narcotic drugs other than heroin, which are among the most dangerous of the prescription drugs, have been declining in use by 12th-graders since 2009, when 9 in 100 teens said they had used them in the last 12 months without medical supervision. In 2013, there were 7 in 100 users, and 6 in 100 in 2014.
Cough and cold medicines available over the counter usually contain the drug dextromethorphan. To get high, teens sometimes take it in large quantities, which is dangerous. But among all grades, its use declined significantly in 2014, to 3.2 in 100 kids.
Use of several other illicit drugs remained essentially unchanged between 2013 and 2014, including some particularly dangerous ones — heroin, crack, methamphetamine and crystal methamphetamine. Other drugs whose use remained unchanged in 2014 include Ritalin and Adderall, stimulants used to treat ADHD, as well as LSD, inhalants, powder cocaine, tranquilizers, sedative and anabolic steroids. But the use of most of these drugs is well below their peak levels.
E-Cigarettes are battery-powered devices with a heating element that produces an aerosol, or vapor, that users inhale. Usually the vapor contains nicotine, but specific contents are proprietary and not regulated. The liquid that is vaporized in e-cigarettes comes in a variety of flavors that appeal to youngsters.
In the last 30 days before the survey in 2014, the number of all-grade users of e-cigs who had never smoked tobacco ranged from 4 in 100 to 7 in 100.
“Whether youth who use e-cigarettes exclusively later go on to become tobacco cigarette smokers is yet to be determined by this study,” researchers reported, “and is of substantial concern to the public health community.”
For more information on drug, alcohol, tobacco and e-cigarette use by children, see our blogs here.