Today, NIDA released the results from the 2015 Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey. The survey focused on 8th, 10th, and 12th graders, asking more than 44,000 students in about 400 U.S. schools questions that help us understand students’ thoughts about drugs and how often they take them, if at all.
This year’s data continue the promising trends of last year. Most substance use among teens is dropping; much of it reached the lowest levels since the annual survey began more than 40 years ago. Other drug use remains stable, including marijuana, with continued high rates of daily use reported among 12th graders, and ongoing declines in teens’ perception of its harm.
Record Low Makes Room for New High
This year, 5.5 percent of high school seniors reported daily cigarette smoking, down from 6.7 percent a year ago and 24.6 percent at its peak in 1997. This large decline in cigarette use means that, for the first time, fewer seniors are daily cigarette smokers than are daily marijuana users. But (there’s always a “but”) the survey showed that in the past year, teens are still smoking nicotine through small cigars (about 15 percent of 12th graders) and hookahs (nearly 20 percent; that’s one in five seniors).
The perception of alcohol among teens is encouraging: many high school seniors distinguish the harm between having a couple of drinks every day versus five or more every day. This year showed the lowest percentage ever of 12th graders who reported being drunk in the past year, with 17.2 percent of 12th graders who reported binge drinking (five or more drinks on a single occasion in the past two weeks).
Knowing What We Don’t Know about e-Cigs
Since its introduction into the MTF survey last year, electronic cigarette (e-cig) use has remained high across all grades. Taking it up another notch, this year the survey asked teens what was in the fluid they were vaporizing. More than 60 percent of all grades reported vaporizing “just flavoring.” Among high school seniors, 22.2 percent reported inhaling nicotine, 6.1 percent reported inhaling marijuana or hash oil, and 6.3 percent said they didn’t know what they inhaled. Since e-cigs are not yet regulated by the government, there is no way to know what chemicals are actually in the flavored liquid. So some e-cig labels might claim there is no nicotine, but we have no way of knowing if that’s true.
This trend will be very important to watch in the coming years as NIDA continues to do research on the health risks related to e-cigs and flavorings. Would you inhale something if you weren’t sure what it was?
Prescription Medications and Illicit Drugs
This year, prescription opioid pain medicine use continues its downward trend, with 4.4 percent of high school seniors reporting nonmedical use of Vicodin® in the year before to the survey. In fact, more than 10.5 percent of high school seniors reported past-year abuse of Vicodin in 2003….so today’s teens seem to be a lot smarter about the potential dangers of opioids. Most teens abusing prescription opioids report getting them from friends or family members; however, one-third report getting them from their own prescriptions, after they don’t really need them anymore for medical reasons.
Abuse of another prescription drug—Adderall®—remains high, with 7.5 percent of seniors reporting abuse in the past year. Adderall is a drug often taken for ADHD symptoms, but it’s not necessarily safe to take if it isn’t prescribed by a doctor.
Like prescription medications, use of many illicit drugs has also trended down, hitting all-time lows for 8th, 10th, and 12th graders. Heroin use was at its lowest levels in the history of the survey—a bright spot in the current opioid crisis that’s affecting older age groups. Heroin use is very low among teens, with no more than one percent of teens reporting any use at all.
It’s important to remember that while the survey results are encouraging, with no major indicator of teen drug use on the rise, the problems and consequences of substance use have not disappeared.
Tell us in the comments: Does it surprise you that fewer teens are using drugs these days? Do you think regular marijuana use is harmful? Do teens who use e-cigs know what they are actually smoking?