Why teenagers aren't drinking and smoking like they used to

Pot is in, bath salts are out

Teens smoking
(Image credit: (H. Armstrong Roberts/CORBIS))

Teenage alcohol and tobacco use is at a historic low, according to a recent survey by the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

The study, which surveyed teenagers from 1975 to 2012, revealed that young people are drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes less frequently than previous generations. The survey also showed that teens are less likely to experiment with unpredictable synthetic drugs (like synthetic marijuana and bath salts) but use cannabis more frequently.

In the past year, high school students who reported smoking cigarettes in the previous 30 days declined from 10.6 percent to 9.6 percent — a statistically significant reduction. Teenage smoking peaked between 1996-1997 and the numbers have been steadily declining since, according to the survey. One potential cause could be the increased federal tax on tobacco enacted in 2009. Electronic cigarettes have also experienced a boom in popularity in the past year and could be detracting would-be teen smokers.

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The use of synthetic marijuana (known as K-2 or Spice) and "bath salts" also sharply decreased among teens in the past year. Horror stories of both substances have circulated in the media, as the effects can be unpredictable and varied between users.

Marijuana use, however, has been on the rise in recent years. The percentage of eighth grade students who have used marijuana in the previous 12 months rose from 11.4 to 12.7 and 10th grade students saw an increase from 28 to 29.8 percent. The survey seems to suggest that the increase is driven by students' perceived lack of risk in using marijuana. Lloyd Johnston, the principal investigator of the study, explains:

The proportion of adolescents seeing marijuana use as risky declined again sharply in all three grades...Perceived risk — namely the risk to the user that teenagers associate with a drug — has been a lead indicator of use, both for marijuana and other drugs, and it has continued its sharp decline in 2013 among teens. This could foretell further increases in use in the future. [University of Michigan]

Most other individual illicit drugs did not see significant change, although there was a slight decrease in the use of inhalants, salvia, narcotics (other than heroin), and hallucinogens (other than LSD).

Alcohol use also saw a dramatic decline, particularly among younger teens. Alcohol use and binge drinking among the grades surveyed is at the lowest it has been since the 1990s. While the reason for the decline isn't clear, students indicated that they perceived alcohol as less available than past generations and that disapproval of binge drinking has steadily increased.

The findings suggest that teenagers' perceived risk influences their choices regarding controlled substances. Marijuana is seen as relatively innocuous, an idea reinforced by decriminalization and legalization in the past year, whereas cautionary information on the dangers and unpredictably of synthetic drugs is widely available. So while keeping teens off drugs altogether is probably still a pipe dream for parents, it turns out they may be more receptive to cautionary information than they thought.

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Monica Nickelsburg is a digital producer for TheWeek.com. She has previously worked for Transient Pictures, The Daily Beast, NBC, and Forbes. Follow her @mnickelsburg.