Cigarette and Alcohol Use Among Teens Hits an All-Time Low

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Every year, the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future survey looks at substance use among middle and high schoolers across America. This year, while illicit drug use continues to show a national decline, cigarette and alcohol use are at their lowest points since the study began in 1975.

This annual study polls between 40,000 and 50,000 students in 8th, 10th, and 12th grade from over 400 schools across the country. The results are then compiled and used to track substance abuse trends among teens.

For alcohol consumption, one major concern is the number of teens who report binge drinking behaviors (five or more drinks in a row). Fortunately, this year saw another significant drop in the number of teens who report binge drinking in the two weeks preceding the survey, with only 12 percent reporting participating in this behavior. This indicates another huge drop from the national high of 22 percent in 1997.

Unfortunately, there are still worrisome results, especially when only the 12th grade responses are isolated. Roughly 1 in 5 high school seniors reports to binge drinking within the past two weeks, and 7 percent even admit to “extreme binge drinking”—having 10 or more drinks in a row. Plus, 4 percent report having 15 or more drinks in a row within the past two weeks—which is a lower percentage than years past, but still a worrying statistic.

Fortunately, peer disapproval of binge drinking has been on the rise among teens, showing yet again that peers are a huge factor in the risky behaviors of their friends. Alcohol has reportedly become more difficult for high schoolers to purchase, which also could have influenced the decline in alcohol use.

Additionally, cigarette smoking has reached an astounding low among all three grades polled this year. The most recent peak was in 1997, when 28 percent of students reported to smoking a cigarette within a month prior to the survey. This year, only 8 percent of teens among all three grades combined reported smoking in the month before being polled. Lloyd Johnston, the study's principal investigator, says of these findings,

The importance of this major decline in smoking for the health and longevity of this generation of young people cannot be overstated.

And we couldn’t agree more—though we do worry about the rising number of teens experimenting with e-cigs, which for the first time ever surpassed traditional cigarettes in popularity this year.

Illicit drug use is also on the decline, especially regarding synthetic marijuana use. This is great news, considering that this wildly dangerous product is even sold in gas stations and other establishments that teens' can easily access, making the reported 50 percent drop in use among high school seniors particularly significant. For more information on the dangers of synthetic marijuana use, see our “Scary Spice” story from the April 2014 issue of Choices.

"In sum, there is a lot of good news in this year's results, but the problems of teen substance use and abuse are still far from going away," Johnston said. And we agree—positive results doesn't mean we can pull back on informed health and substance abuse information. "We see a cyclical pattern in the 40 years of observations made with this study. When things are much improved is when the country is most likely to take its eye off the ball, as happened in the early 1990s, and fail to deter the incoming generation of young people from using drugs, including new drugs that inevitably come along."

For more information on substance use and other health issues, subscribe to Choices for your teen. See the full results of the Monitoring the Future survey here.