Survey: Decline in Teen Smoking Slowing, Prescription Drug Use Up

After several years of sharp declines, the percentage of U.S. teenagers who smoke cigarettes has leveled out, according to a survey released today by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the University of Michigan.

The Monitoring the Future survey, which included 49,347 teenagers in the eighth, 10th and 12th grades, also revealed that overall drug use is declining -- with the exception of prescription painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin.

When it comes to smoking, the survey found that more than 23 percent of high school seniors still smoke, down from 40 percent in 1976. But over the past year, the survey found virtually no change in smoking rates among eighth-, 10th- or 12th-graders.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a private interest group, attributed the slowdown to cuts in state funding for tobacco prevention programs over the past several years. At the same time, tobacco companies have increased their marketing to record levels, the campaign said in a press release. They are calling for an increase in tobacco taxes, more programs to prevent kids from smoking and to help smokers quit and more smoke-free public places.

The new survey also showed mixed results in illicit drug use by teenagers. While the proportion of older teens using illegal drugs continued to decline for the fourth consecutive year, progress has stalled for younger teens in the eighth grade.

"What is significant is that the use of these substances has declined substantially since the recent peak levels reached in the mid-1990s," said Lloyd Johnston, a researcher at Michigan and the survey's lead investigator.

For example, the most widely used illegal drug, marijuana, "continued a pattern of very modest decline in the upper grades, a decline that has been ongoing since 2001," he said.

However, he said, "the story this year is certainly more complicated than usual."

Although modest declines also were found for amphetamines, methamphetamine, steroids and alcohol, researchers were troubled by the steady rates of high abuse for prescription painkillers.

In 2005, 9.5 percent of 12th-graders reported using Vicodin and 5.5 percent reported using OxyContin within the past year.

"Considering the addictive potential of (OxyContin)," Johnston said, "these are disturbing high rates of use."