FEWER teenagers these days think drugs are dangerous, an attitude shift that may explain why, after a decade of steady decline, smoking and drug use among teenagers are on the rise again.
An annual survey of 50,000 junior high and high school students in more than 400 schools across the country found that, in 1993, 42.9 percent of high school seniors said they had used an illicit drug at least once by the time they graduated from high school.
The study done by University of Michigan researchers also found that 8 percent of eighthgraders, 14 percent of 10th-graders, and 19 percent of seniors said they smoked cigarettes daily - up from 1992 by almost 2 percent.
However, it was the findings on marijuana use that have alarmed experts on the issue. The proportion of eighth-graders using marijuana has increased by half in the last two years.
``This problem isn't behind us,'' said Lloyd Johnston, the University of Michigan researcher who directs the annual study. ``With more young people using drugs and smoking cigarettes, and with the social constraints on use declining, the stage is set for a potential resurgence of cocaine and crack use.''
Researchers say one reason for the sudden increase is that more teenagers ignore the dangers associated with experimenting with drugs.
Only 36 percent of eighth-graders, 30 percent of the 10th-graders, and 22 percent of the 12th-graders perceive risk in trying marijuana once or twice, said Lee Brown at the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Experts also say the decline in drug use seen in the 1980s has given the impression that drugs are no longer an epidemic. ``The steady decline in the last decade has given Americans a false sense of security,'' Mr. Johnston said. ``Kids now think they're invincible.''
But according to Peter Reuter, a professor in the school of public affairs at the University of Maryland, there are no clear-cut reasons for the sudden increase in drug abuse, particularly marijuana.
Loss of message
But he did say: ``We don't have a credible message on marijuana anymore,'' Mr. Reuter said. ``That's alarming given that the increase in marijuana use is large enough to suggest that it will continue to increase for some time.''
At a press conference in Washington Jan. 31, Secretary of Education Richard Riley and Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala recapped the administration's initiative to reclaim the streets from crime and drugs. ``We know that young people need to hear a frequent and consistent message about drug abuse,'' said Ms. Shalala. ``The message is that drugs are harmful, that drugs are deadly, and that drugs are illegal - and will stay illegal.''
Shalala said she will be making an appeal to the media, entertainment, advertising, and communications industries to support and strengthen the anti-drug message.
Mr. Riley said the Education Department will increase funding for education and drug- and violence-prevention programs for 1994. The budget President Clinton will give Congress next week includes a $660 million request for federal programs aimed at fighting drug abuse, up from $491.6 million last year. ``We must make sure that this one-year increase in drug use is not the start of a trend,'' Riley said.
Some critics say the Clinton administration has not taken this issue seriously enough, referring to Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders's words on legalizing drugs. ``To the degree that the Clinton administration has decided to address the issue at all, its efforts have been deleterious,'' said William Bennett, co-director of Empower America, a conservative, public policy advocacy group in Washington.
``You can't blame government for this problem,'' said Reuter. ``It isn't government policy that determines drug abuse. It's attitudes - no government has ever been supportive of drugs. And yet, popular culture has.''