Are Teens Really Doing Less Drinking and Drugging?

By Dorri Olds 06/15/16

The Fix spoke with the CDC's Dr. Stephanie Zaza about the declining trend of some risky underage behavior.

Are Teens Really Doing Less Drinking and Drugging?

There's been a drop in many areas of risky conduct among American teenagers over the last year, according to new CDC data. 

The results of the 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS)—which included more than 15,000 high school students across 37 states—were released June 9, and they're encouraging. The Los Angeles Times summed it up like this: "U.S. teens are having a lot less sex, they are drinking and using drugs less often, and they aren't smoking as much."

It sounded too good to be true though, so The Fix contacted Dr. Stephanie Zaza, director of the CDC Division of Adolescent and School Health, for an exclusive interview.

“We’ve been seeing a declining trend in tobacco and alcohol over the last 10 years, so it wasn’t entirely surprising to see the numbers come down a little bit yet again,” Dr. Zaza told The Fix. The CDC has been been tracking tobacco and alcohol use among youths since 1991.

“We’ve also been tracking marijuana and that has been coming down a little as well,” said Zaza. “Since 2009, we began tracking the use of prescription drugs that were not prescribed by a doctor.” 

Zaza is referring to pills obtained by rummaging through medicine cabinets, bought on the street, or acquired through friends sharing prescription ADHD drugs or prescription opiates. “All of that has gone down,” she said, “but the important thing is that the prevalence rates this year, even though they’ve been coming down, are still pretty high.”

The news regarding teen tobacco use is mixed. “Cigarette smoking is at an all-time low, but use of e-cigarettes, which contain nicotine in a highly addictive form, is 24%. We’ve kind of replaced cigarettes, so this is not great news.”

As the LA Times stated, alcohol use has indeed gone down, but still, 63% of kids in the 2015 survey have tried alcohol and a little less than 33% reported drinking alcohol at least once in the last 30 days. 

“We are still concerned that a third of our youth are using alcohol, which is highly addictive,” Zaza told The Fix. “It also can have profound effects on the developing brain and has the potential to lead to other high risk behaviors such as driving while under the influence, risky sexual behaviors while drinking, and we still see high rates of binge drinking.”

Regarding the decline in marijuana use, Zaza said, “We cannot attribute this national rate to any given state or community, so we have to be careful about presuming that legalization efforts in a few places are having an impact.”

She also feels that it’s too early to tell if marijuana laws per state have an effect on use. “But alcohol and pot are still the most commonly used substances among youths, and we need to watch that carefully,” she said.

The non-medical use of prescription drugs registered at 17%, which is down from 23% in 2011. However, Zaza said there's still reason for concern.

“It represents a behavior that we as a society are normalizing,” she said, “that it’s okay to take drugs if they were prescribed by a doctor for somebody. The assumption is then, they must be safe. But these are highly addictive drugs.”

Zaza pointed out that we still don’t know what the long-term effects from opiates, stimulants and anti-anxiety meds like Xanax have on the brain. “These are powerful medications that should only be used under a doctor’s care,” she said.

“For 17% of young people to say that they’ve tried these [drugs] represents a worrisome behavior that could extend to addiction and can possibly lead to much more dangerous methods of drug-taking, such as injecting. The numbers are coming down but we should not be complacent about them.”

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.