Sara Bellum
January 5 2012
Nora D. Volkow, M.D., Director of NIDA, announcing the release of the 2011 Monitoring the Future survey results.

How Many Teens Actually Smoke, Drink, or Do Drugs?

It’s natural to be curious about your peers—especially when it comes to things that we know can be dangerous, like alcohol and drug use. You’ve probably heard rumors of kids drinking beer at a party or may have a friend who smokes cigarettes.

You may wonder how many teens actually smoke, drink, or do drugs. It’s a question we hear frequently from teens. During NIDA’s 2011 Drug Facts Chat Day, students from the around the country asked NIDA scientists questions such as:

  • “How many teens smoke every year?”
  • “Has the number of people who abuse drugs increased or decreased in the past 5 years? And why?”
  • “What percent of teens has tried drugs?”
  • “How many kids are doing drugs?”

In December 2011, NIDA released the 2011 Monitoring the Future Study, and it seems that more teens are making better decisions when it comes to smoking and alcohol use, but not so much when it comes to using marijuana and abusing prescription drugs.

Here’s a glimpse at the most recent trends in teen drug and alcohol use.

Cigarette and Alcohol Use at Historic Low

Teen smoking has declined in all three grades included in the study—grades 8, 10, and 12. Still, almost 19 percent of 12th graders reported current (past-month) cigarette use.

This decline shows that more teens realize the harm smoking does to your body and are making the decision not to start. Also, teens’ attitudes about smoking have changed. They increasingly prefer to date nonsmokers and believe smoking to be a dirty habit.

Graph modeling cigarette and marijuana use in teens.

Likewise, among nearly all grades, trends over the past 5 years showed significant decreases in alcohol use—including first-time use, occasional use, daily use, and binge drinking. As with smoking, this decline may be the result of more teens understanding the risk of drinking alcohol and disapproving of this behavior.

Marijuana Use Continues To Rise

Unlike cigarettes and alcohol, marijuana use is increasing. Among 12th graders, 36.4 percent reported using marijuana at least once in the past year, up from 31.5 percent 5 years ago. This accompanies a decrease in the number of 12th graders who perceive that smoking marijuana is harmful. For example, only 22.7 percent of high school seniors saw great risk in smoking marijuana occasionally, compared to 25.9 percent 5 years ago.

Of course, we know the risks: marijuana can affect memory, judgment, and perception, and it can harm a teen’s developing brain.

Prescription Drug Abuse Remains Steady

Prescription drug abuse hasn’t changed much since 2010. Abuse of the opioid painkiller Vicodin and the nonmedical use of Adderall and Ritalin, stimulants meant to treat ADHD, remained about the same as last year. Also, the abuse of the opioid painkiller OxyContin remained steady for the past 5 years across all 3 grades surveyed.

To drive this trend downward, NIDA recently launched PEERx, a prescription drug abuse awareness campaign that gives teens science-based information about the harmful effects of prescription drug abuse on the brain and body.

When teens understand the health risks of abusing drugs, they do it less. So, tell us, how would you convince your peers that marijuana use and prescription drug abuse are harmful?

These estimates come from the Monitoring the Future Study's national surveys of approximately 47,000 students in about 400 secondary schools each year. The survey was conducted in classrooms earlier this year. View all of the 2011 data.

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