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Teens and Substance Abuse: Generation "No"

by George Gallup, Jr. and Elizabeth Slentz

From the Bush twins' censure for underage drinking last spring to last month's revelation of marijuana use by Britain's 17-year-old Prince Harry, the occasional exploits of high-profile youngsters almost always bring the issue of teen substance abuse back into the spotlight.

But lest these high-profile transgressions give parents pause, take a look at the broader trends. The dawn of the Information Age has sparked a dramatic increase in the number and size of national campaigns to deter teen drinking, smoking and drug use. Gallup Youth Survey data from the past 25 years indicate that these campaigns have had an enormous impact on teen behavior. The percentage of high school-age teens who smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol and experiment with marijuana has declined dramatically over the last two decades -- as much as 50% in each of the above categories.

In response to a 1979 Gallup Youth Survey, 24% of teens said they smoked cigarettes during the last seven days; last year, only 12% said the same*. A study released in December by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan cited stricter advertising regulations (e.g., the removal of "Joe Camel" cigarette ads) and the rise in industry prices as contributors to this decline. In the 2001 Gallup Youth Survey, the number of 13 to 17 year olds who have ever consumed alcoholic beverages has also dropped, from 38% to 21% over the last 22 years. And the proportion of teens who have ever tried marijuana has been halved, from 41% in the 1979 survey to 20% last year. Such findings are not anomalies; a number of recent statewide studies, including surveys in Massachusetts and Texas, suggest that American teens are beginning to adhere to a healthier lifestyle.

On the basis of teens' own admissions, however, there is still considerable room for improvement on a number of other health fronts. Half of teens (48%) say they do not get enough sleep because of long hours spent at work and school, and on extracurricular activities; one-third (33%) say they don't watch their diet closely enough; one-fourth (26%) do not get regular checkups with their doctor; and one-fifth (19%) say they do not get enough regular exercise to keep them healthy.

*Findings are based on telephone interviews with a representative national sample of 501 teen-agers, ages 13 to 17. Interviews were conducted March through May 2001.


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