Study On Teen Substance Abuse Highlights Need for Screening and Prevention Programs

A new study showing marked increases in teen use of marijuana and Ecstasy over the past three years underscores the importance of incorporating screening and prevention programs into all health care interactions with adolescents and their parents, says a leading expert on adolescent substance abuse treatment.

“Any time professionals have an option to work with parents or teenagers, even if it’s not directly about a substance abuse issue, they should be putting drug use on the radar screen,” says Ken Winters, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research, Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Minnesota, and Research Scientist at Treatment Research Institute. “Many health care settings don’t have the luxury of specialized and expensive drug treatment, but a quick screening and a brief discussion about drug use should be more achievable in pediatric and other adolescent health settings.”

Teen Drinking Normalized

Dr. Winters said the findings of the 22nd annual Partnership Attitude Tracking Study (PATS), released by The Partnership at Drugfree.org and MetLife Foundation earlier this month, echo the reality that substance abuse treatment professionals see every day. The study shows that underage drinking has become more normalized among adolescents. Of those teens who reported alcohol use, 62 percent said they had their first full alcoholic drink by age 15, not including sipping or tasting alcohol. Of those teens who reported alcohol use, 25 percent said they drank a full alcoholic drink for the first time by age 12 or younger. Almost half of teens (45 percent) said they do not see a great risk in heavy daily drinking.

Age of first use is critically important: research has shown that more than 40 percent of those who start drinking at age 14 or younger developed alcohol dependence, compared with 10 percent of those who began drinking at age 20 or older.

The study also found that marijuana use is on the rise. Past-year marijuana use among teens increased by 22 percent (from 32 percent in 2008 to 39 percent in 2010). There was a 67 percent increase in the number of teens who reported using Ecstasy in the past year (from 6 percent in 2008 to 10 percent in 2010).

Prescription Drug Abuse

The PATS survey touched on an issue that parents are often unaware of: teen abuse of prescription medicines. The data found that 25 percent of teens reported taking a prescription drug not prescribed to them by a doctor at least once in their lives, and 23 percent used a prescription pain reliever not prescribed to them by a doctor. “Health care professionals need to alert parents that if they’re taking prescription drugs, they can’t just take the medicine home and put it in an unsecure place —that’s risky,” Dr. Winters says. “Parents are often surprised to find out how common it is for teenagers to take medication from the medicine chest and use it or sell it. We have to remind them not only to monitor their prescriptions, but also to dispose of unused medications with the many drug disposal programs that are now available.”