Drug trends among American teens

December 17, 1999
  • umichnews@umich.edu

EDITORS: Complete tables and figures available at www.MonitoringTheFuture.org
EDITORS: Results of this survey are scheduled to be announced at a news conference in Washington, D.C. Among those participating in the release of results will be Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy Barry R. McCaffrey, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse Alan I. Leshner, and the principal investigator of the Monitoring the Future Study, Lloyd D. Johnston. For further information on the study, contact Johnston at (734) 763-5043.
ANN ARBOR—With a few notable exceptions, drug use among American adolescents held steady in 1999, according to the latest results from the Monitoring the Future study, conducted at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research (ISR). Reporting on the 25th national survey of high school seniors, and the ninth national survey of eighth- and 10th-graders, ISR research scientists Lloyd D. Johnston, Jerald G. Bachman, and Patrick M. O’Malley find that, in general, the changes in 1999 are modest.
“We are down some from the recent peak levels in overall illicit drug use by American teen-agers, which were reached in 1996 and 1997,” states Johnston, “but not much of that improvement occurred this year. I am hopeful that this is just a pause in a longer-term decline. In fact, we saw such a pause in the 80s, in the middle of what turned out to be a continuing decline in drug use.”
The investigators note that, after several years of steady increase, the annual prevalence rates for most drugs reached their recent peak levels in the mid 1990s—inhalants in 1995; hallucinogens, including LSD and PCP, in 1996; and marijuana and amphetamines in 1996 or 1997 (depending on the age of the students). The overall proportions reporting any illicit drug use in the prior year peaked among younger teens in 1996 and among older teens in 1997. In general, the usage statistics have been receding since then, at least until 1999.
Drugs which showed little change in use this year include marijuana, amphetamines, hallucinogens, tranquilizers, and heroin.
Monitoring the Future is conducted at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR) and is supported under a series of research grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, one of the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
One of the brightest spots in this year’s story is that inhalant use appeared to continue its longer-term, very gradual decline at all three grades (although none of this year’s changes were large enough to be statistically significant).
The use of inhalants began to turn downward in 1996, following the launching of an ad campaign by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, and has been gradually and steadily declining since then. Inhalants are about the only drugs that are used more by younger teens than by older ones.
The use of nitrite inhalants, specifically, which is only asked of the 12th-graders, declined significantly in 1999. Less than 1 percent (0.9 percent) reported any nitrite use in the prior 12 months.
Another bright spot in this year’s results is a significant drop in the use of crack cocaine among both eighth- and 10th-graders in 1999, following several years of gradually increasing use. While the rates of crack use in the 90s never attained the peak level of the original crack epidemic in the mid 80s, according to Johnston, the increase in use was still a matter of concern, given the addictive potential of that drug.
While overall amphetamine use changed little in 1999, the use of “ice” or crystal methamphetamine, declined significantly among 12th-graders to its lowest level in five years. (Only 12th-graders are asked about using ice.) Ice comes in chunks or “rocks” which can be heated and the fumes inhaled, much as is done with crack cocaine. Also like crack, it can be highly addictive. The proportion of 12th-graders indicating any use of ice in the prior 12 months fell from 3 percent in 1998 to 1.9 percent in 1999. (The proportions taking methamphetamines in any form, including ice, is higher—3.2 percent in eighth-grade, 4.6 percent in 10th-grade, and 4.7 percent in 12th-grade. Since the question on overall methamphetamine use was added to the survey for the first time in 1999, no trend statistics are yet available for that more general class of drugs.)
A “club drug” added to the study in 1996, rohypnol—one of the so-called “date rape drugs”—showed a small decline in use in all grades this year, though only the eighth-grade decline was large enough to be statistically significant. The annual prevalence of use is only 0.5 percent in eighth-grade and 1 percent in 10th- and 12th-grades.
The continuing decline in cigarette smoking among the younger teens was some other favorable news, according to the investigators. [Those findings are reported in detail in a separate press release.]
On the negative side of the ledger, the use of MDMA (“ecstasy”), which is one of the so-called “club drugs” because of its popularity at dance clubs and raves, rose among the older teens (10th- and 12th-graders). “While the use of this drug had been declining since we first measured it in 1996, for some reason it made a resurgence in 1999,” says Johnston. Some 4.4 percent of the 1999 10th-graders reported some use of ecstasy during the prior 12 months (up from 3.3 percent in 1998) and 5.6 percent of the 12th-graders (up from 3.6 percent in 1998).
“Unfortunately we do not have data on the use of GHB, or gamma hydroxybutyrate, which, like rohypnol, is another so-called ‘date rape drug’ receiving considerable attention at present,” says Johnston. “A number of the deaths associated with GHB have resulted from a person putting the drug into another person’s drink without their knowledge,” he adds, “so I don’t know how accurately people can report whether they have taken it. But clearly it is a very dangerous drug, and the mounting accidental death toll among young people proves it. We will be asking about its use in our next survey.”
The use of anabolic steroids by males in their early- to mid-teens jumped some in 1999. Among eighth-grade boys, the proportion reporting any use in the prior year rose from 1.6 percent in 1998 to 2.5 percent in 1999, while among 10th-grade boys there was an increase from 1.9 percent to 2.8 percent. This increase occurred fairly broadly across different regions and communities of different sizes. No such increase occurred among the older teens (i.e., 12th-graders).
“As many had feared, we think it likely that Mark McGwire’s reported use of androstenedione in the year in which he set a new homerun record affected young boys,” says Johnston. Androstenedione (pronounced an-dro-STEEN-die-own) is a steroid that the body converts to testosterone, and at present it is not a controlled substance.
“Surely it gave them the idea that it could make them stronger, though we have no questions dealing directly with that belief,” adds Johnston, “but it also appears to have reassured some about the safety of using steroids.” Among the 12th-graders—the only grade level asked about the safety of using steroids—the proportion of all students saying that users risk harming themselves, physically or in other ways, by using steroids dropped from 68 percent to 62 percent between the 1998 and 1999 surveys—a large one-year drop. The surveys are conducted in the spring and, therefore, bracket the 1998 baseball season.
Johnston emphasizes that McGwire announced that he had stopped using androstenedione early this year, largely because of his concern about his role-modeling effect on young people. He still turned in an extraordinary performance in the 1999 season, Johnston notes.
Heroin use has remained fairly stable at all three grade levels for the last three years, after the rates had roughly doubled between 1991 and 1995. The study has shown that the amount of danger young people perceived to be associated with heroin use fell some in the first half of the 90s, quite likely as a result of the advent of non-injectable forms of heroin use. However, since 1995 there has been some recovery in the perceived risks of heroin, which likely explains the leveling off of use.
“We think that the untimely deaths of several musicians and other celebrities from heroin use, as well as the media campaign against heroin, may have influenced young peoples’ view of how dangerous a drug this is, even if it is not being injected,” observes Johnston.
Alcohol use among teens has been fairly stable over the past several years, as measured by the proportion reporting any alcohol consumption in the month prior to the survey. These rates stand at 24 percent, 40 percent, and 51 percent in grades eight, 10, and 12, respectively. There may have been a slight one-year “uptick” in binge drinking—consuming five or more drinks in a row sometime in the prior two weeks—in the lower grades, but the rates are still about where they were two to three years ago. They stand at 15 percent, 26 percent, and 31 percent among eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-graders.
“We do not have any ready explanation of why the use of marijuana and a number of other drugs seemed to level off in 1999,” Johnston says, “but we think there is a fair chance that it simply reflects a pause in a longer-term decline.” For the most part, beliefs about the dangers associated with the use of these drugs—which have been harbingers of change in the past—remained fairly stable in 1999. Disapproval of using marijuana rose a bit among eighth-graders. Disapproval of using inhalants rose among both eighth- and 10th-graders.
The “Monitoring the Future” study is conducted at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research and has been supported since its inception under a series of investigator-initiated research grants from the National Institute of Drug Abuse, one of the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Annual surveys of high school seniors began in 1975, and annual surveys of eigth- and 10th-grade students were added, beginning in 1991. At each grade level students are drawn to be representative of all students in public and private schools in the coterminous United States. They complete self-administered, optically-scanned questionnaires given to them in their classrooms in the spring of the year by U-M personnel. In 1999 the sample sizes for eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-grades, respectively, were 17,300, 13,900, and 14,100. In all, about 45,000 students located in 433 secondary schools participated in the study.

www.MonitoringTheFuture.orgInstitute for Social ResearchNational Institute on Drug Abuseinhalantcrack cocaineamphetamineseparate press release