Teens are smoking, drinking, and engaging in illicit drug use at the lowest rates in some 40 years, according to a new report.
While experts are enthusiastic about the downward trend, they caution that it’s too soon to explain the phenomenon or predict its staying power.
The "Monitoring the Future" study, released Tuesday by the government's National Institute on Drug Abuse, found rates of each behavior have dropped among today’s teens after peaking in the 1990s and 2000s. The annual survey questioned some 45,000 8th-, 10th- and 12th-graders from 372 public and private schools across the country.
“The question is: Why is all this happening?” Lloyd Johnston, the study’s leader, told USA Today. “Even though we have some hypotheses, I don’t know that we necessarily have the right ones.”
One answer, Dr. Johnston says, could be a drop in cigarette smoking following increased awareness of its health risks. This year, only 1.8 percent of students surveyed reported smoking a half pack or more of cigarettes per day, with 10.5 percent said they had smoked at least once within the last month.
Cigarette smoking has generally proved to be a gateway drug to other risky behaviors, and a drop in that realm could have lead to subsequent decreases in drinking and the use of marijuana and opioids.
Drinking, for example, also dropped to the lowest rate on record, with 37 percent of high school seniors saying they’ve been drunk at least once. That’s down from just over 50 percent in the early 2000s, when the rate peaked.
The survey also showed that today’s teens have largely avoided the opioid epidemic that has ravaged segments of the nation, profoundly impacting many young people in their 20s. Among teens, only 4.8 percent of high school seniors have tried pain killers in 2016, dropping from 9.5 percent in 2004, and just 0.3 percent said they had tried heroin.
But outside researchers remain skeptical about the opioid findings, noting that teens addicted to these substances may not be enrolled in the kinds of traditional school systems this survey examined and are at a higher risk of being homeless or incarcerated.
"The kids who are involved with drugs that heavily aren't still in school filling out that survey," Caleb Banta-Green, a principal research scientist at the University of Washington's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute, told US News and World Report. In addition, many people begin abusing opioids later in life, commonly when they are in their 20s, US News reports.
Still, researchers say the results give them a reason to celebrate progress in steering America’s youth away from dangerous habits and addictions.
"That is gigantic good fortune," Jonathan Caulkins, a drug policy researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, told USA Today, "and really I don't think we as a field or society more generally have spent as much time as we should have celebrating and reflecting on why today’s kids are so great in this regard."