Truths behind the latest numbers on teen drug use

The National Institute on Drug Abuse has released its annual findings about US teenagers and substance abuse. The big news is that opioid misuse by teens is at historic lows (clearly a good thing). The late-to-the-party news is that young people really like vaping.

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This year’s survey also saw the lowest percentage of teen cigarette smokers in 43 years. Unfortunately, they are still smoking a lot of pot.

Nora Volkow, director of NIDA—which is part of the National Institutes of Health—says officials are concerned about vaping because some teens who use electronic cigarettes are also first-time nicotine users. That could lead to tobacco smoking later in life. “It is critical that we intervene with evidence-based efforts to prevent youth from using these products,” she told reporters Dec. 14.

That nicotine set off alarm bells for the NIDA is emblematic of the agency’s approach to messaging around teen drug use overall. It is highlighting findings that were relevant in mid-century America while sidestepping some of the more disquieting facts in the 2017 report. To be sure, studies have shown that addiction to cigarettes correlates highly to other addictions later in life. But teenagers in 2017 are more likely to be reaching for the phones in their pockets, than a package of smokes.

The NIDA plans to start inquiring about how social media might interplay with drug use this year. They are speculating that because kids are spending less face-to-face time with one another, they may be under less peer pressure. “As more kids have less interactions because of social media they may be using less drugs,” Volkow said. (One hopes that the NIDA folks will begin by reading the literature on cyber bullying.)

Here is a look at the 2017 findings:

An uptick in marijuana use

As teens continue to light up, it is possible that some are skipping nicotine in favor of marijuana. The numbers show that pot smoking is going up. (Marijuana use in adults is up significantly as well.)

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