The survey of 72,561 teens found that American Indian youth had the highest level of drug or alcohol use, with 48 percent reporting they had used the substances in the past year. That was followed by 39 percent of whites, 37 percent of Hispanics, 36 percent mixed-race teens, 32 percent of blacks and 24 percent of Asians, according to the research published today in Archives of General Psychiatry.
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The findings that black teens are less likely to drink or use drugs than whites may refute stereotypes and help programs “focus on the subgroups of adolescents who are at greater risk,” said study author Dan Blazer, a professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. Overall, 37 percent, or 27,705, of the teens in the study said they used alcohol or drugs in the past year, researchers said.
“This is a very real public health problem and all of us need to be concerned about it,” said Blazer, in a Nov. 4 telephone interview. “We need to be looking for it and we need to be trying to jump in to do what we can to get these kids into treatment and turn them around while they’re still adolescents.”
About 90 percent of all adults with alcohol and drug problems started using before the age of 18 and half started before the age of 15, according to the website of the Partnership at Drugfree.org, a nonprofit that helps parents find information on drug abuse prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery for their children.
Researchers used information from the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health from 2005 to 2008, the only survey designed to provide ongoing estimates of substance use in the U.S. The survey asks about use of alcohol and nine drug classes, including marijuana, inhalants, heroin and prescription painkillers. The study included youth ages 12 to 17.
About 37 percent of American Indian teens reported using alcohol in the past year, followed by 35 percent of whites and 32 percent of Hispanics, 31 percent of mixed race, 25 percent of blacks and 19 percent of Asians.
For drug use, about 31 percent of American Indians used in the past year, compared with 23 percent of those who considered themselves mixed race and 20 percent of whites, the research found. About 19 percent of black, 18 percent of Hispanic teens and 12 percent of Asian teens said they used drugs in the past year. Blazer said there was no way to tease out which American Indian teens by tribe were using drugs and alcohol. Use isn’t equal across all tribes, he said.
“What surprised us the most was the relatively lower rate of use among African Americans,” said Blazer. “The public perception is that that’s not the case.”
Prescription painkillers like Purdue Pharma LP’s OxyContin and Abbott Laboratories Vicodin have replaced inhalants as the second most commonly used drug behind marijuana, according to the study.
The research also showed that about 8 percent of teens in the study met the criteria for substance abuse disorder, which means their use escalated, caused legal problems or interfered with other activities.
Teens who used heroin were most likely to develop addiction or abuse, the research found. Marijuana use, which was used twice that of most other drugs in the study, also results in addiction or abuse.
“Experimentation is going to happen. The interesting part of this analysis is where they looked at the people who had used a substance and then who went on to have a problem,” said Elizabeth D’Amico, a psychologist who works primarily on teen substance abuse issues and a senior behavioral scientist at Rand Corp., a policy institute in Santa Monica, California.
“Those are the teens we want to help,” said D’Amico, who was not an author on today’s paper, in a Nov. 4 telephone interview. “Really working with those kids who are already starting to use is where we can put more of our dollars.”
Blazer said more studies are needed to determine which treatments work best for kids who have drug and alcohol problems.
The study was funded by grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.