Results from 2008 Dayton Area Drug Survey Offer Mixed News

Results from the 2008 Dayton Area Drug Survey (DADS) are mixed. The good news is that data from seventh and ninth grade students show that the general decline in the initiation of drug use noted in previous years has continued. Less encouraging are data from high school seniors suggesting that, among these older students, the decline may have stalled, at least for some drugs. Overall, the largest declines in drug use initiation occurred with alcohol and cigarettes. Even so, these drugs, along with marijuana, are still the ones most commonly abused by area school-aged teens.

DADS is a biennial, cross-sectional study that provides estimates of teen drug use in the Miami Valley. First administered in 1990, DADS is a collaborative, eleemosynary effort between the Center for Interventions, Treatment and Addictions Research at Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine, Unified Health Solutions, and area school districts. Districts choose which grades between 7 and 12 they want to survey. Students respond anonymously and on a voluntary basis. In the spring 2008, 17,315 students from 17 Miami Valley school districts provided usable data. The majority of the sample was white (about 83 percent), largely suburban, and nearly evenly split between boys and girls.

Alcohol remains the most widely used drug. Among 12th graders, more than 70 percent reported drinking alcohol at least once in their lifetimes. Of these, 54.3 percent reported being drunk at least once. Among those who reported drinking to drunkenness, 46.8 percent said they had done so 10 or more times. In the two weeks before the survey, 27.2 percent of the respondents reported having had five or more drinks in a row on at least one occasion. Among ninth graders, 45.7 percent reported lifetime experience with alcohol, 24.7 percent reported having been drunk at least once, and 21.2 percent of these reported doing so 10 or more times. Nine percent reported having five or more drinks in a row in the two weeks before the survey. The corresponding percentages for seventh graders were 21.2 percent, 6.2 percent, 9.2 percent, and 2.5 percent, respectively.

DADS data on alcohol use reflect the scope of the problem. As we have noted in previous reports, alcoholic beverages are widely advertised and used in our society. Consequently, attitudes toward the use of alcohol are more tolerant than they are toward the use of other drugs. Research on alcohol and brain development in adolescents suggests that alcohol use, heavy use in particular, is fraught with long term, adverse consequences. Research also suggests that young people who get involved with alcohol while they are young teens have a much higher likelihood of becoming alcoholics than those who postpone drinking until they are older. A multi-faceted, preventive approach, such as the one that has been so effective with tobacco, has not been applied to alcohol, particularly in regard to advertising. Imposing restrictions on alcohol advertising as part of a comprehensive effort to change teens' attitudes toward alcohol as well as their drinking practices should be seriously considered.

DADS data show 39.8 percent of high school seniors reported any cigarette use, down from 43.4 percent in 2006. Similar decreases also occurred among ninth and seventh grade students. Although initiation rates are continuing to decline, the percentage of young people who reported smoking a half pack or more per day or smoking daily was essentially unchanged from 2006. These results suggest that anti-tobacco efforts targeting teens are succeeding in reducing smoking initiation, but may be less successful in stopping smoking once it moves beyond experimentation. Data from future surveys will help clarify this issue.

Teenagers' use alcohol and tobacco is significant for at least two reasons. First, it is well-known that the abuse of these drugs alone can result in a variety of untoward health and social consequences, some of which can last a lifetime. Secondly, tobacco and alcohol are "gateway drugs," drugs whose use often presages the abuse of other drugs. Consequently, people concerned about preventing teen drug abuse need to pay careful attention to teens' involvement with alcohol and tobacco.

The percentage of 12th grade students who reported having used marijuana/hashish at least once declined slightly, from 40.9 percent in 2006 to 39.4 percent in 2008. The percentage of teens reporting daily marijuana use, defined in DADS as having used the drug 20 or more times in the 30 days before the study, remained essentially unchanged at 4.7 percent. Lifetime marijuana use was reported by 16.2 percent of ninth graders with 1.3 percent reporting daily use. Less than 2 percent of seventh graders reported ever having used marijuana.

Among 12th graders declines occurred in the lifetime use of cocaine HCl, crack, hallucinogens, amphetamine, methamphetamine, dextromethorphan (a cough suppressant), inhalants, and steroids, although some of the decreases are very slight. A major decrease occurred in the use non-prescription diet pills and stay-awake remedies, from 19.7 percent in 2006 to 13.8 percent in 2008. Slight increases in the lifetime use of the following drugs were noted: non-prescribed prescription opiates, non-prescribed prescription tranquilizers, methylphenidate (e.g., Ritalin), MDMA (ecstasy), and heroin.

Seniors were queried about drug use and motor vehicle behavior. When asked if they had ridden in a motor vehicle when they believed the driver was under the influence of alcohol or other non-medical drugs (other than caffeine or tobacco), 45.8 percent said they had. Among these, 49.1 percent reporting that they had done so more than once or twice. When asked if they had driven a motor vehicle while under the influence, 28.7 percent reported they had. Among these, 56.9 percent reported they had done so more than once or twice. These rates are essentially the same as they were in 2006.

By the time young people in the DADS sample near the end of their secondary education, 44.3 percent have used an illicit drug at least once, while 25.9 percent reported having used an illicit drug other than marijuana at least once. In contrast, 22.6 percent of high school seniors reported never having used alcohol, tobacco, or any illicit drugs. Proportionately more girls than boys were abstemious - 54.6 percent to 44.8 percent. It must be noted that DADS was administered in late winter/early spring, so these percentages may have changed by the time of actual graduation.

DADS covered non-drug issues, too. Results show:

  • 26.5 percent of 7th graders, 22.8 percent of 9th graders, and 12.3 percent of 12th graders felt bullied by other teens in the 30 days before the survey;
  • 16.4 percent of 7th graders, 12.1 percent of 9th graders, and 7.8 percent of 12th graders got into a physical fight with someone in the 30 days before the survey;
  • 4 percent of 7th graders, 5.7 percent of 9th graders, and 14.8 percent of 12th graders missed school without the permission of a parent or guardian in the 30 days before the survey;
  • 62.8 percent of 12th graders were employed outside of the home or school; and
  • About 89.1 percent of the students currently considered themselves to be happy or very happy with their lives while the remainder considered themselves to be unhappy or very unhappy.

Overall, DADS results suggest the need for on-going, intensive drug abuse prevention programs in the schools that extend beyond the ninth grade, when such efforts often end. The rationale for such an extension is based on the fact that school is the place where large numbers young people congregate and the strong evidence that initiation of drug use continues throughout adolescence. For example, DADS data suggest that the percentage of teenagers who will get drunk for the first time will double between the ninth and 12th grades. Marijuana use will also come close to doubling. Implementing and sustaining evidence-based, public health-oriented school and community prevention programs can help reduce the rate of erosion of abstinence as well as decrease drug-related problems among teens.