Teen drug use continues to escalate, and some experts cite it as a public health problem of epidemic levels. The Columbia University-based National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) recently reported that 75 percent of all students in high school have used tobacco, alcohol, or either illicit or legal drugs. Furthermore, the report reveals that 20 percent of these teens are addicted.
The recent CASA data supports previous study data linking early substance abuse to an addiction later in the person’s life. According to previous studies, 90 percent of those Americans who are now addicted began smoking, drinking or drug-use before the age of 18-years old.
About 25 percent of those youth who begin using addictive substances at an early age will become adult addicts. In contrast to the early users, of those who begin using substances after the age of 21-years old, only one in 25 will become addicted.
Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine’s Dr. Leslie Walker, president of the society and University of Washington chief of adolescent medicine, says that study data shows that any adolescent is at risk of substance use.
CASA director of policy research, Susan Foster, says the study data highlights the fact that not only is early substance abuse potentially harmful to teens, but that any substance abuse at all is harmful. She adds that science tells us that the risk of becoming addicted is greater the earlier the person starts to use.
Foster cites adolescence as a critical period in which to start using drugs and acquiring addictions. Teenagers’ decision-making ability, judgment and impulse control can be impaired with drug-use, thus increasing the risk of addiction.
It has also been found that some young people are more prone to use drugs than others, especially those who have abusive or addicted parents, those who have experienced trauma of some kind, and those who may have mental health issues. While early drug use alone can increase the risk of later addiction, the factors of trauma, abuse and a predisposition to mental health issues may also contribute to a risk of early drug-use.
Alcohol use amongst teens began dropping slightly in 2009 and 2010, but the misuse and abuse of prescription painkillers such as Oxycontin, and drugs such as those given to children and youth for ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder)—a diagnosis which is questionable at best—continue to climb.
A reason cited by health experts for the increasing drug abuse trends amongst adolescents is the mixed messages about drug use given by society and parents. According to Dr. Walker, the idea that every teen is going to try a potentially addictive substance, and it is not a big deal and “it’s fine” should not be accepted as “normative”. On the contrary, she points out there is a reason that adolescents should not be using, and there are things that can be done about it.
Walker suggests that parents need to educate themselves as to the potentially harmful effects substances such as alcohol, tobacco and marijuana can have on their children’s ability to mature emotionally and learn judgment. Teens whose parents excuse the use or abuse of these substances as preferable to “harder drugs” will not then learn the important lesson that any of these substances can be a source of harm.
Drug prevention education is a vital part of preventing substance use and abuse by our children and youth. Young people need to know the truth about drugs, and the risks and consequences of their use. When given accurate and factual information, experience has demonstrated that young people are capable of making better choices when faced with drugs and the opportunity to use them.
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