Youth Survey: Alcohol and Drug Use Among Teens

by Coleen McMurray, Senior Staff Writer

The Intelligencer Record, a small community newspaper outside Philadelphia, recently published a story about a teenage girl who entered drug rehabilitation to end a two-year drug addiction. The addiction began when she tried prescription painkillers out of boredom and curiosity at the age of 17. She eventually ran away from the rehabilitation center and her parents have not heard from her since.

Sadly, scenes similar to this are played out all too often across the country, leaving behind a trail of agonized families, grieving friends, and anguished communities and schools. How big of a problem is alcohol and drug use among American teenagers? And what about the abuse of over-the-counter cold medications -- referred to as "skittling" among teens?

In response to a Gallup Youth Survey conducted between Jan. 22 and March 9*, one in five teenagers (20%) said they have tried marijuana (79% said they have not), and about 3 in 10 (27%) said they have used alcohol (72% said they have not). These percentages are similar to those found last year; according to the January-February 2003 Gallup Youth Survey, 20% of teens said they had used marijuana and 30% said they had used alcohol.

While only a minority of teens admit to using marijuana or alcohol, a majority are concerned about the problem of drug abuse among their friends. Seventy-two percent of teens characterize abuse of illegal drugs such as marijuana and cocaine as either a "very serious" (52%) or "somewhat serious" (20%) health issue among their teenaged friends, and 74% feel that alcohol abuse is a very serious (42%) or somewhat serious (32%) problem. In addition, about half of teens (52%) see abuse of legal, over-the-counter remedies such as cold medicine, recently identified as a growing trend among teens, as a very serious (28%) or somewhat serious (25%) health issue among their peers.

Gender, Age Affect Alcohol and Drug Use

Teenage boys are much more likely than teenage girls to say they have tried marijuana (28% compared with 12%), and older teens (16- to 17-year-olds) are nearly three times as likely as younger teens (13- to 15-year-olds) to have tried it (32% vs. 12%). Alcohol use is also greater among older teens than younger teens (37% vs. 20%).

Bottom Line

According to a report published by the American Medical Association, more than half of all American teenagers will have tried an illegal drug by the time they finish high school. But there are signs of progress; a report released last December by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) documented a decline in teen drug abuse over a two-year period (NIDA estimates that 400,000 fewer teens used drugs in 2003 than in 2001).

NIDA Director Dr. Nora Volkow said in a press release at the time the NIDA findings were made public: "We are confident that our concerted effort to provide students and teachers with informative, accurate information about addiction and drug abuse will contribute to further reductions in drug use." Gallup's ongoing tracking of these trends among the nation's youth will help reveal whether Volkow's optimism is justified.

*The Gallup Youth Survey is conducted via an Internet methodology provided by Knowledge Networks, using an online research panel that is designed to be representative of the entire U.S. population. Self-administered survey approaches to sensitive topics such as those covered in this report have been shown to yield more admissions of socially undesirable behavior than surveys using standard telephone interviewing methods. Seven hundred eighty-five respondents, aged 13 to 17, completed the current questionnaire, between Jan. 22 and March 9, 2004. For results based on a random sample of this size, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

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