Smells Like Teen Spirits

By Jeff Forester 06/29/11

Nine out of ten life-time addicts start using before they're 18.

teen brain.jpg
Teen brains aren’t, like, fully formed.
Photo via thinkstockphotos

Nine out of 10 chemically dependent Americans started smoking, drinking or drugging before age 18, according to a study released today by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University.  And while it makes sense that most addicts started young, the report seems to show a more direct relationship: Teen drug use can prime sensitive brains in a way that makes them more vulnerable to addiction over their lifetimes.

"Adolescent Substance Use; America’s #1 Public Health Problem" found that 1 in 4 Americans who began using any addictive substance before 18 is addicted, compared to 1 in 25 Americans who started using at age 21 or older. 46% (6.1 million) of all high school students currently use addictive substances; 1 in 5 of them meets the medical criteria for addiction. “Teen substance use is the origin of the largest preventable and most costly public health problem in America today,” said Susan Foster, CASA’s Vice President and Director of Policy Research and Analysis. “We are focusing on prevention. Substance use among teens is the source of a life-long debilitating disease.“

The problem is teen brains. While 95% of human brain development happens by the age of five, the pre-frontal cortex, which is involved in decisions about risk taking and impulse control, remains underdeveloped until the early twenties. Adolescents have low impulse control and are more likely to take risks, including using drugs, tobacco or alcohol. When they do, they are more likely to become addicted. Said former U.S. Congressman Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.), a CASA board member: “Smoking, drinking and using other drugs while the brain is still developing dramatically hikes the risk of addiction and other devastating consequences.”

These consequences include accidents, injuries, unintended pregnancies, medical issues ranging from asthma to psychosis, lower academic performance, criminal involvement, and death.  CASA estimates the immediate costs of substance use in the United States at at $468 billion per year—almost $1,500 for every person in America. The CASA report found that 46% of children under age 18 (34.4 million) live in a household where someone 18 or older is smoking, drinking excessively, misusing prescription drugs or using illegal drugs. “Understanding this as a health problem gives parents a better way to intervene in positive ways,” says Foster.

The report notes that attitudes must also change outside the home. Insurance companies, the justice system, and schools will all need to shift focus from teen substance use to teen health. Kids are constantly bombarded with messages from bi conglomerates that using tobacco, drugs or alcohol is glamorous, stress relieving, and acceptable. “Our culture could hardly do more to promote the use of chemicals or drugs,” said Foster. “The alcohol and tobacco industries know that the best way to get a long-term customer is to start them early.  Marketing works.”

Schools are also missing the mark, according to the CASA study. Only 44% of teachers think that their school’s prevention program is effective, and 50% of teachers have had no training in substance abuse issues in the last three years. 82% of schools suspend a student for alcohol or drugs, and only 10% recommend treatment for students who violate school drug or alcohol rules. 

“It is time to recognize teen substance use as a preventable public health problem and addiction as a treatable medical disease,” said Foster, “and to respond to it as fiercely as we would any other public health epidemic threatening the safety of our children.”

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Jeff Forester is a writer in Minnesota. His book, Forest for the Trees: How Humans Shaped the North Woods, an ecological history of his state's famed Boundary Waters, came out in paperback in 2009. Jeff is the Executive Director of MN Lakes and Rivers Advocates MLR and you can follow him on Twitter.