Knowing risks, more teenagers stay drug-free

The largest decline in teen drug use in years is capped by 20 percent fall in Ecstasy use.

A remarkable thing happened in the past year.

Teen drug and alcohol abuse as well as teen smoking all went down across the board. Even the use of Ecstasy, the so-called "love drug" that spiked 20 percent in 2001 is on the decline.

While many researchers are surprised, Ginienne Santoro is not. She sees a change in attitudes in the high school where she's president of her senior class. Plenty of kids still get high, but it's cool now if you choose not to. You can still be popular.

That's partly because they have more information, she says. They know that Ecstasy can leave holes the size of a quarter in your brain. But she believes the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have also changed the way many teens think about themselves and the world.

"Kids realized they weren't invincible, this could have happened to them any time," says Ms. Santoro. "So they started thinking twice about doing things that could harm themselves."

While that hypothesis may be hard to prove, Lloyd Johnston, the lead investigator of the Monitoring the Future Study, believes that Santoro is onto something.

"The hypothesis is that it may have had a sobering effect on young people. They are looking at life a little more seriously and with a less celebratory view," says Dr. Johnston of the University of Michigan. "There's enough things that are consistent with that, that we're inclined to give that explanation for at least part of the decline."

The Monitoring the Future Study, which is funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, annually surveys over 44,000 students in 8th, 10th, and 12th grade in more than 400 schools around the country. Over the past five years, it found the overall illicit drug use had been holding fairly steady: about 27 percent of 8th graders, 46 percent of 10th-graders and 54 percent of seniors reported some kind of illegal drug use. This year, it was down in all three grades, with the biggest drop of 2.3 percentage points for 8th graders.

Researchers say that's a possible indication that teen drug use will continue to go down over the next few years because drug-abuse trends are often set at a young age and track with students as they go through school.

One of the biggest drops was in the use of Ecstasy, a change researchers had expected.

Scaring teenagers works

Historically, there's been a link between how dangerous teenagers think a drug is and the level of use. For instance, before the decline in crack use in the late 1980s, the Monitoring the Future Study found that more teens thought it was a dangerous and destructive drug. For the past five years, the use of Ecstasy has been increasing annually. It was hyped in the media as the "love drug" and rumored to have few negative side effects. Then the science started to come to light - the permanent brain damage and dehydration that can lead to death.

At Sacred Heart Academy in Hamden, Conn., which Santoro attends, the entire school was brought into the auditorium for a presentation on the physical impact of Ecstasy. "After that, kids were like, 'No way,' about using Ecstasy," she says.

Last year researchers saw an increase in the number of teenagers, such as Santoro's classmates, who perceived the drug to be dangerous. But it continued to spread into new communities so overall use rose. This year, the perception of danger was widespread enough to cause the decline, researchers say.

The Monitoring the Future Study also found a significant drop in the use of alcohol, particularly among eighth and 10th-graders. Use was down more than three percentage points in each class. That surprised researchers and lends credence to the notion that 9/11 may have impacted teen behavior.

Tobacco use was also down significantly, more than five percentage points in the eighth and 10th grades and almost four percentage points in the senior class.

Antismoking advocates say that indicates "unprecedented success" in the fight to keep young people from lighting up. They credit the implementation of comprehensive antismoking campaigns and higher cigarette prices.

"We have long standing solid evidence that raising the price of tobacco will reduce youth smoking and adult consumption," says William Corr of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids in Washington. "We also have solid evidence that state tobacco prevention programs can significantly reduce youth smoking in a relatively short period of time."

Cultural factors

Drug use, historically, has gone up and down in the United States. Some researchers attribute the current decrease to better enforcement of alcohol laws and less availability of some drugs. But they also see some larger cultural forces at work. "There's also more information about the importance of taking care of yourself, particularly among younger kids," says David Rosenbloom, the director of Join Together, a substance-abuse research project at Boston University. "And I think parents are talking to their children more."

While the overall news about drug use dropping is good, Eric Wish of the Center of Substance Abuse Services at the University of Maryland notes that it's impossible to define a trend from a one-year change.

"Don't mistake statistical significance with substantive significance," he says. "Many kids are continuing to use alcohol and marijuana as their primary drugs, and, as they get older, they're graduating to the club drugs."

Santoro agrees with that observation. It would be easy to do almost any kind of drug, she says, but she has no interest in them.

"When you see people who use drugs and what happens to them, you really don't want it to happen to you," she says.

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