U.S. Teens Smoking

The percentage of 12- to 17-year-olds who smoke, drink, or use certain illegal drugs has been falling in recent years, according to a new U.S. government report.

This news comes from 2014 survey data released this month by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

The researchers also established what appears to be a link between mental health and substance abuse.

The annual survey of around 67,500 people of all ages covers both substance use and mental health disorders.

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Substance Use by the Numbers

According to the survey, the percentage of teens between 12 and 17 years old who admitted to drinking alcohol within the previous month fell from 17 percent in 2002 to 11 percent in 2014.

During that same time period, binge drinking during the past month fell to 6 percent of teens under 18 years, down from 10 percent. That means that roughly half of teens who currently drink are also binge drinkers.

The survey also shows that use of prescription pain medications — such as Oxycontin or Vicodin — for nonmedical reasons continues to be the second most common type of illegal drug use for all age groups. Marijuana takes the number one spot.

Teen Drug Use

The percentage of 12- to 17-year-olds who said they used pain relievers illegally in the past month decreased from 3 percent in 2002 to about 2 percent in 2014. This level has remained about the same since 2012.

Smoking and other tobacco use among teens under 18 years old fell by more than half to 7 percent in 2014, down from 15 percent in 2002.

Among 12- to 17-year-olds, past-month marijuana use and past-year heroin use remained at about the same level since 2002. Overall, both of these have increased for people 12 years and older.

Researchers didn’t speculate on why alcohol and substance abuse among teens is declining.

In previous reports, researchers have credited public awareness campaigns for the decrease.

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Mental Health Plays a Role in Substance Abuse

The SAMHSA report also covers mental health problems in the country, and for good reason.

“There is a strong correlation between mental health disorders and substance use disorders, particularly among adolescents — usually called co-occurring disorders,” Marcia Lee Taylor, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, told Healthline in an e-mail.

The SAMHSA survey estimates that in 2014, 5 percent of teens under 18 years old had some kind of substance use disorder during the past year, down from about 9 percent in 2002.

In 2014, 11 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds had a major depressive episode during the previous year. This was higher than each year between 2004 and 2012, and similar to 2013.

There is a strong correlation between mental health disorders and substance use disorders, particularly among adolescents.
Marcia Lee Taylor, Partnership for Drug-Free Kids

In addition, of the 2.4 million teens in 2014 who had a major depressive episode during the past year, 340,000 also had a substance use disorder. And the percentage of teens under 18 years old who used illegal drugs was higher among those with major depression than those without.

This overlap makes preventing the use of illegal substances more difficult, especially given the limited treatment options for teens with both mental health and substance use disorders.

“There is a major need for treatment for both disorders, and very little availability of such treatment,” said Taylor. “So prevention, early identification, and treatment of these disorders are closely linked, for both the adolescent and their families.”

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Understanding Why Teens Use Drugs and Alcohol

Keeping teens from experimenting with — or abusing — drugs, alcohol, or tobacco, though, is not as clear-cut as telling them to just say no. Getting the message across effectively depends on each teen’s personal situation.

“The messaging to get a teen to stop abusing a drug as a way to cope with pressure in their lives is very different from the one we would deliver to prevent a teen from using a drug simply to get high and have fun,” said Taylor.

Although the SAMHSA report provides much detail about how many people are using certain substances, it falls short in one key way — the motivation of teens for using alcohol or drugs.

“The better we can understand why someone engages in dangerous behavior, the better equipped we are to prevent it,” said Taylor. “Today, we are seeing that stress and anxiety are significant drivers of prescription drug abuse among teens.”

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