Survey reveals new trends in teen drug and alcohol use

Last Updated Dec 16, 2015 2:52 PM EST

Alcohol and cigarette use are down among teens, but marijuana use has not declined, a new report shows. For the first time, researchers found that more high school seniors smoke marijuana than regular cigarettes on a daily basis.

The annual survey of 8th, 10th and 12th graders is out today from the National Institutes of Health's National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). It shows substance abuse among high schoolers is stable or down in most categories.

Researchers at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor have been running the survey since 1975, measuring use and monitoring teens' attitudes about drugs and alcohol.

This year's 2015 Monitoring the Future survey shows that teens overall are cutting back on use of cigarettes, alcohol (including binge drinking), prescription opioid pain relievers, and synthetic marijuana.

"These are some of the lowest numbers we have ever seen," NIDA Director Dr. Nora D. Volkow told CBS News. "Notable is cigarette smoking -- it is lower than we've ever seen it. Heroin is at the lowest it's ever been. For prescription opiates, it's the lowest we have ever seen. Overall this is very good news."

The researchers said one concerning area, though, is that marijuana use has not declined. Daily use remains flat at 6 percent -- for the first time, it exceeds tobacco cigarette use among 12th graders (at 5.5 percent).

The survey suggests teens see marijuana as less risky than in the past -- this year, 31.9 percent of 12th graders said regular use could be harmful compared to 36.1 percent last year.

But despite that impression, Volkow stressed that marijuana has potentially serious negative effects on teens' still-developing brains.

What might be influencing an attitude shift toward the drug? Changes in state laws regarding marijuana use, and media attention about the potential medicinal benefits of marijuana may be having an impact.

"People have an association that it has medical, therapeutic benefits," Volkow said. The messaging being sent is that marijuana can help with a wide variety of diseases and conditions, and it gives the impression that it's safe, but she said, "Among teens, several studies provide evidence showing marijuana's affects are deleterious."

The survey found prescription opioid use continues to drop, with 4.4 percent of high school seniors reporting non-medical use of Vicodin (hydrocodone and acetaminophen), down from a peak of 10.5 percent in 2003. Most teens who abuse prescription opioids said they get them from friends or family members. But one-third say they use their own prescriptions. Experts say the finding underscores the need for doctors to closely monitor teen prescription painkiller use.

On another positive note, the survey found heroin use is down. Numerous recent news reports have highlighted heroin overdoses among teens and the devastating effect the drug has had on families and communities, so survey results showing heroin use at an all-time low (0.3 percent for eighth graders, and 0.5 for 10th and 12th graders) were heartening.

Other highlights of the survey include:

Drugs

  • Among high school seniors, almost a quarter reported using an illicit drug in the past month, with 7.6 percent reporting they used a drug other than marijuana.
  • Use of MDMA (known as Ecstasy or Molly), inhalants, and LSD are generally stable or down. In 2015, 3.6 percent of seniors reported past year use of MDMA, compared to 5 percent in 2014.
  • Use of synthetic marijuana drugs, like K2 or Spice, dropped significantly: 5.2 percent of 12th graders reported using them, down from 11.4 percent in 2011.
  • Non-medical use of the prescription drug Adderall, typically prescribed for ADHD, is still high at 7.5 percent among 12th graders.

Tobacco

  • Cigarette smoking rates have taken a nosedive. Cigarette use dropped from 6.7 percent last year to 5.5 percent among 12th graders this year. Among 10th graders, cigarette smoking has been cut by more than half over the past five years, from 6.6 percent in 2010 to just 3 percent today.
  • Use of other tobacco products remain high. Almost 1 in 5 students in 12th grade (19.8 percent) report hookah use and 15.9 percent smoke small cigars.
  • Attitudes toward smoking are changing for the better. More than 75 percent of high school seniors view smoking a pack or more a day as harmful, compared to 51.3 percent in 1975, first year of the survey.

E-cigarettes

Alcohol

  • Alcohol use overall continues to decrease. All three grades showed a decline in the proportion of students reporting any alcohol use in the past year, dropping from 43 percent to 41 percent.
  • Binge drinking -- downing five or more drinks in a row within the past two weeks -- is at 17.2 percent among seniors, down from 19.4 percent last year. Binge drinking peaked in 1998 at 31.5 percent.
  • Getting drunk is down among high school seniors. A little over 37 percent of 12th graders say they have been drunk in the past year, compared to 41.4 percent last year and 53.2 percent in 2001.

Overall, 44,892 students from 382 public and private schools participated in this year's survey.

Volkow credits the decrease in cigarette and alcohol use to strong prevention efforts, such as in-school and parent education, and increasing taxes on substances.

"Adolescents have less money than adults and are much more sensitive to differences in prices. With alcohol, there have been very aggressive campaigns in schools and to teach parents, no, it is not okay. Also, re-enforcement of not selling alcohol to teens so it's harder for them to get their hands on it," said Volkow.

While the numbers are going down in many categories, or at least remaining stable, drug and alcohol use are still too high in school students, said the experts.

"We are very encouraged by the continued decline in underage drinking illustrated in these data," said George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, in a statement. "However, the percent of underage individuals drinking still remains unacceptably high."

National Drug Control Policy Director Michael Botticelli said there's still work to be done.

"Efforts to prevent drug use from ever starting are particularly important as we work to reduce the rising number of drug overdoses across the country," he said. "I encourage parents, teachers, coaches, and mentors to have a conversation with the young people in their lives about making the healthy decisions that will keep them on a path toward a successful future."

In an interview with CBS News' "60 Minutes" last week, Botticelli emphasized the need to rethink America's "war on drugs." That approach "has been all wrong," he said. "We've learned addiction is a brain disease. This is not a moral failing ... The medical community has a key role to play in terms of doing a better job of identifying people in the early stages of their disease, in doing a better job at treating people who have this disorder."

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    Mary Brophy Marcus covers health and wellness for CBSNews.com