New Study Examines Teen Alcohol And Illicit Drug Use

Most US teenagers have used alcohol and drugs by the time they reach adulthood and more than 15 percent of them meet the criteria for substance abuse, according to a new survey published in the April issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.
The survey of more than 10,000 US teens found that 4 out of 5 (78.2 percent) teens had tried alcohol before the age of 18. The results of the survey also showed that some 18 percent of adults meet the criteria for “lifetime abuse” of alcohol and 11 percent meet that criteria for drug abuse, with onset of abuse starting in teenage years for many.
“It´s in adolescence that the onset of substance abuse disorders occurs for most individuals,” lead author Joel Swendsen, director of research at the National Center of Scientific Research in Bordeaux, France, told Reuters. “That’s where the roots take place.”
For the study, Swendsen and colleagues examined the frequency, age of onset and socio-demographic factors related to alcohol and drug use and abuse by US teens. The cross-sectional survey included a nationally representative sample of 10,123 adolescents ages 13 to 18 years old. The study and survey were conducted between February 2001 and January 2004.
Researchers found that median age at onset was 14 years old for regular alcohol use with or without dependence; 14 years old for drug abuse with dependence; and 15 years old for drug abuse without dependence.
“Because the early onset of substance use is a significant predictor of substance use behavior and disorders in a lifespan, the public health implications of the current findings are far reaching,” the study authors noted.
Based on 3,700 teens in the survey who were between the ages of 13 and 14, the team found that roughly one in ten had consumed alcohol on a regular basis, defined as 12 drinks within a year. That number jumped to about one in five when the team surveyed 2,300 17- to 18-year-olds.
Swendsen and colleagues said nearly one in three of the regular users in the oldest age group met the criteria for lifetime alcohol abuse.
Sixty percent of the teens surveyed said they had the opportunity to use illicit drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine, stimulants and painkillers. About one in ten 13- to 14-year-olds said they had used at least one such drug, and that increased to 40 percent in the oldest age group. Marijuana was the most common type of drug used, followed by prescription drugs.
Swendsen and colleagues noted that while the probability of alcohol and drug use increased with age, the rates were almost always lowest in black and other racial/ethnic groups compared to white or Hispanic adolescents.
“The reason we worry about [drug and alcohol use] is that the earlier [teens] use these substances the earlier they become addicted to it,” Susan Foster, vice president and director of policy research and analysis at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in New York, told Reuters.
Foster, who was not part of the study, said using such drugs at such an early age is especially dangerous because the brain is still developing. “There´s really a type of rewiring that goes on with continued use than can result in an increased interest in using and an inability to stop using,” she added.
Foster, whose organization published a comprehensive report on substance abuse in adolescents last year, said the findings of the latest study are consistent with that research. “We´ve had spikes and declines of abuse across the population,” she said.
Swendsen and colleagues also noted that strategies need to target adolescents to prevent drug and alcohol abuse, but also need to take into account the different factors that influence it.
“We don´t need to bombard them with information that´s beyond their stage of development, but don´t think a 13-year-old doesn´t know what cannabis is,” Swendsen told Reuters.
“The prevention of both alcohol and illicit drug abuse requires strategies that target early adolescence and take into account the highly differential influence that population-based factors may exert by stage of substance use,” the authors concluded.