Cigarette smoking continues to decline among U.S. teens, but rates of daily use of e-cigarettes and marijuana remain high. In fact, high school seniors report smoking marijuana at higher rates than tobacco cigarettes.
Those are a few of the key findings of the 2015 Monitoring the Future report released Dec.16. Researchers surveyed 41,551 students from 377 public and private schools in the 8th, 10th, and 12th grades to determine drug use habits across the United States.
“We are heartened to see that most illicit drug use is not increasing, nonmedical use of prescription opioids is decreasing, and there is improvement in alcohol and cigarette use rates,” Dr. Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said in a statement. “However, continued areas of concern are the high rate of daily marijuana smoking seen among high school students because of marijuana’s potential deleterious effects on the developing brains of teenagers, and the high rates of overall tobacco products and nicotine containing e-cigarettes usage.”
The report found that 9.5% of 8th-graders, 14.0% of 10th-graders, and 16.2% of 12th-graders had used e-cigarettes in the month prior to being surveyed. Those numbers are roughly on par with what was reported last year, when the survey found that 9%, 16%, and 17% of 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-graders, respectively, recently had used e-cigarettes.
High school seniors alone reported relatively high rates of nicotine use (22.2%) and marijuana or hash oil (6.1%) inhalation, as well. Overall, 66.2% of high school seniors surveyed reported not knowing exactly what they had inhaled. The 2015 report also marks the first time daily cigarette use was lower than daily marijuana use among 12th-graders: 5.5% vs. 6%. Furthermore, 21.3% reported having used marijuana in the last month, compared with 11.4% who reported smoking cigarettes.
During a teleconference announcing the findings, Dr. Volkow said the higher prevalence of marijuana over cigarette smoking “reflects attitudes” among America’s youth – something that she stressed needs to be addressed by health care providers and policy makers. According to the report, 31.9% of seniors said regular use of marijuana could be harmful, compared with 36.1% last year.
Meanwhile, the use of heroin was at its lowest point since these surveys began in 1975. Overall, 95.3% of 12th-graders voiced a “continued high rate of disapproval” regarding occasional heroin use. Other drugs and addictive substances also showed similarly low rates among 12th-graders, compared with previous years, such as synthetic cannabinoids (5.2%), acetaminophen/hydrocodone (Vicodin) (4.4%), oxycodone (Oxycontin) (3.7%), and methylenedioxymethamphetamine, also known as MDMA, Ecstasy, or Molly (3.6%).
The 12th-graders reported relatively high rates of alcohol use: 58.2% reported prior use. But the report highlights that 5-year trends overall continue to show that alcohol use is declining, with 9.7%, 21.5%, and 35.3% of 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-graders, respectively, reporting consumption in the last month before being surveyed. Five years ago, those rates were 13.8%, 28.9%, and 41.2%, respectively. Also the rate of binge drinking, defined as consuming five or more drinks in a row over the past 2 weeks, dropped to 17.2% among seniors, compared with 19.4% the previous year and the peak rate of 31.5% in 1998.
The prevalence of hookah and small cigar smoking also remained relatively high, with 19.8% and 15.9%, respectively, reporting recent use.
Lloyd D. Johnston, Ph.D., senior research scientist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and principal investigator on the report, cautioned during the teleconference that despite the positive aspects of the latest findings, the health care community – providers, policy makers, and patients – need to remain vigilant.
“[This] reminds me a lot of 1990, when the country got substance abuse of most kinds down to very low levels, and I think the country took its eye off the problem,” Dr. Johnston said. “It’s like we said ‘that problem’s solved; let’s move to the next one,’ [but] this is not a problem that is ever solved,” he said. “This is like crime – you keep working to minimize it.”
The Monitoring the Future report, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, is conducted by investigators from the University of Michigan. None of the authors reported relevant financial disclosures.