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Teen Drug Use Is Declining, But Why?


Teen drug use in the United States is in decline. A government study finds that the overall use of alcohol, marijuana, prescription medications and illicit substances dropped among American teens last year, but why?

We're joined in the studio by Dr. Wilson Compton. He's deputy director of the National Institute for drug abuse. They conducted the research. Dr. Compton, thanks for being with us.

WILSON COMPTON: It's a pleasure to be with you today.

SIMON: Did somebody do something right?

COMPTON: Absolutely. We're very pleased that we're seeing all across the country reductions in drug use by teens. This is a longstanding research study conducted by the University of Michigan that goes out every year to survey students from all across the country in public and private schools. They survey some 15,000 eighth graders, 15,000 10th graders and 15,000 12th graders. So they're able to tell us what's happening with substance use among teens in our country every year with remarkable precision because of those large numbers.

SIMON: And we should underscore this is in the middle of a drug crisis epidemic in this country.

COMPTON: Absolutely. We're seeing a scourge related particularly to the opioids, to heroin, prescription drugs and most recently with fentanyl. What we're not seeing is the teenagers using these drugs. As a matter of fact, in all three grades, we've seen a reduction in prescription-opioid misuse. So that's really good news. We're doing something right in our country, and communities are helping guide their teens in healthier directions.

SIMON: Is it public education, or are there other factors?

COMPTON: I wish I could tell you precisely what the factors are that drive the drug use rates so that we could copy it and do a better job of implementing it. We do know that it varies across the age groups so that while the eighth graders show the most pronounced reductions in drug use, we don't see nearly as significant changes for the 12th graders.

We see improvements for the 12th graders in alcohol and tobacco. We have seen improvements in many of the prescription drugs like the prescription painkillers - things like hydrocodone and oxycodone. But we aren't seeing improvements in the 12th graders when it comes to marijuana use.

SIMON: Marijuana which has become increasingly legal or at least not subject to criminal penalties in the United States.

COMPTON: So it remains illegal in all states for those under age 18. But we certainly know that teenagers are not immune from those social trends. And they perceive marijuana as much less harmful than they used to.

There's at least a couple of other major possibilities related to substance use. One relates to how illicit drugs and alcohol interact with tobacco use. So when you look at substances used by teens, tobacco use has shown the greatest improvements in the last 20 years. One generation ago, we had about 10 percent of 14 year olds smoking every day. That means in a typical class two or three kids were smoking every day, and a much larger number had sampled tobacco.

SIMON: In a high school class - in a freshman high school class?

COMPTON: That's right. And now it's well under 1 percent, so that's a remarkable public health story that might be some of what's driving the reductions in other substance use.

SIMON: Public education, greater knowledge among young people instilled by parents and older people.

COMPTON: Also, some of the same risk factors and behaviors that lead towards tobacco use can lead into other substances. There may even be a biological pathway that starts with nicotine exposure that can prime the brain to be more interested in other drugs. There are some very intriguing basic science research to support that possibility.

SIMON: So cigarettes as a gateway is a possibility?

COMPTON: Yes, both from a social-learning perspective as well as the biological pathways of nicotine changing the brain in some ways to make other drugs more appealing.

SIMON: As we've said, this seems to be good news, Dr. Compton, but what do you worry about?

COMPTON: Well, despite there being good news, there are a remarkable number of teens that still expose themselves to alcohol, tobacco and marijuana. They will limit their lives both socially in terms of their school performance, and they may shorten their lives in terms of the health effects of these substances.

So we haven't finished our work here, but we're very grateful for some of the improvements brought about by parents, by community coalitions, by health educators and all these other sources of information that can help guide teens in some healthier directions.

SIMON: Dr. Wilson Compton of the National Institute for Drug Abuse, thanks so much for being with us, sir.

COMPTON: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF THIS WILL DESTROY YOU'S "QUIET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.