Teen Drug Use Declines, Vaping Rises

By Keri Blakinger 12/18/17

A new survey on teen drug use showed that smoking amongst high school seniors has seen a 24.6% decrease from the peak rate in 1997.

young couple with dyed hair smoking electronic cigarettes on the lake

Drug use is down, but vaping is on the rise. That’s according to the National Institute of Health’s annual Monitoring The Future survey of teenage drug use and smoking trends, which was released on Thursday.

One of the promising changes, from a public health perspective, is the sizable decrease in tobacco smoking among teens. 

"In particular, we see a tremendous decline in the portion of young people using cigarettes," University of Michigan researcher Dr. Lloyd Johnson said at a Thursday press conference, according to NPR. "The changes we're seeing are very large and very important."

Just 4.2% of high school seniors reported smoking cigarettes, a 24.6% decrease from the peak rate in 1997. But the popularity of vaping is increasing instead, with 16.6% of seniors reporting some type of electronic device use. 

“We are especially concerned because the survey shows that some of the teens using these devices are first-time nicotine users,” NIDA director Dr. Nora D. Volkow said in a release. “Recent research suggests that some of them could move on to regular cigarette smoking, so it is critical that we intervene with evidence-based efforts to prevent youth from using these products.”

Marijuana use is up a bit, and significantly fewer teens say they disapprove of it now than in the past. Kids are more likely to have vaped using pot in states that have legalized it, the survey found.

And even as the opioid epidemic continues devastating older age groups, teenage opioid misuse is down from where it was a decade ago, the survey found. Vicodin abuse was at its lowest point since researchers started measuring it 15 years ago. The drug peaked among teens in 2003 when 10.5% of high school seniors were using it. This year, it’s just 2%.

Overall, pain med and narcotics use rates are down. “The decline in both the misuse and perceived availability of opioid medications may reflect recent public health initiatives to discourage opioid misuse to address this crisis,” Volkow said. 

Inhalant use is up a little among eighth graders, but still lower than what it was in the 1990s.

Other illicit drug use is the lowest it’s been in the history of the survey, as just 13.3% of seniors reported using drugs in the past year, along with 9.4% of sophomores and 5.8% of eighth graders. At the same time, binge drinking has leveled off a bit.

The survey, which first started in 1975, looked at more than 43,000 students from 8th, 10th and 12th grades in both public and private schools to examine their attitudes toward drug and alcohol use.

"It is good to see consumption of most substances going down,” said Robin Koval, CEO of the anti-tobacco Truth Initiative. “It's consistent with what we know about, as we're calling them, Gen Z.”

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.