Household Survey Reports Decrease in Teen Use, While Overall Use Remains Flat 8/20/99

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Rob Stewart, Drug Policy Foundation, http://www.dpf.org

The Clinton administration announced on Wednesday that while overall illegal drug use remained flat in 1998, past-month teenage drug use went down. White House drug policy director Gen. Barry McCaffrey called the findings in the 1998 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse "good news demonstrating that America's team effort is working. However, we must not let our guard down."

Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala also expressed overall optimism -- "it looks like we have turned the corner" on teen drug use -- tempered with "we must not rest."

McCaffrey's and Shalala's excitement was mainly generated by the 13.1% drop in past-month (or current) use reported by 12-17 year olds, which went from 11.4% in 1997 to 9.9% in 1998, a statistically significant decrease. Teens also reported a significant decrease in the use of inhalants, from 2.0% to 1.1%, and a non-significant decrease in marijuana use, from 9.4% to 8.3%. (In statistical terms, "non-significant" means the data isn't strong enough to know if the decrease is real or not.)

Although both officials cautioned that there were other worrisome trends, such as increased use reported by 18-25 year olds, their tone was noticeably brighter than two years ago when they announced another drop in teen use. In August 1997, the NHSDA found that overall use by 12-17 year olds fell 17.4%, from 10.9% in 1995 to 9.0% in 1996, which is lower than the 1998 finding. Yet, McCaffrey characterized the change as a "_slight_ drop" [emphasis added]. The Washington Post quoted Shalala on Aug. 7, 1997, as saying that "drug use is still unacceptably high" and "we shouldn't hang out the victory flag yet." Those responses were more realistic than Shalala's "turned-corner" phrase, which implies that trends are turned around in one year.

Lynn Zimmer, a professor of sociology at CUNY Queens, told the Week Online, "Drug use trends are always going to fluctuate." "I would expect," Zimmer added, "that [Shalala and McCaffrey] are saying that we have 'turned the corner' because they still have to go through the allocation process for their media campaign, which went nationwide last year."

(The National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign is a joint multimedia advertising effort by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Even though the campaign plans on five years of federal funding, ONDCP must ask Congress to approve money for it every year. Some Republicans in Congress have been critical of the campaign, especially since ONCDP has not concentrated the ads in states voting on policy reform initiatives.)

Both the 1997 and 1998 Household Surveys include specific results for Arizona and California using oversampled data. Both states approved initiatives in 1996. HHS added the information "to measure the potential impact of these voter initiatives." The 1998 NHSDA found that, although drug use reported by persons 12 and older in both Arizona (7.4%) and California (7.2%) is higher than the national average (6.1%), the differences are not statistically significant.

Indeed, the survey found "significant decreases from 1997 to 1998 in the rate of illicit drug use among Arizona youth age 12-17 (from 16.8% to 13.4%) and young adults age 18-25 (from 21.8% to 17.2%)." Californians age 12-17 reported no significant change in marijuana use, which was 6.8% in 1997 and 7.4% in 1998. "Rates for both youths and adults [in California] have been stable since 1995," the survey said.

Select Results from the 1998 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (H-10):

  • an estimated 13.6 million Americans (6.2% of the population age 12 or older) reported using an illegal drug within the past 30 days in 1998. Although this number is slightly less than the 13.9 million estimate (6.4%) for 1997, the difference is not statistically significant. By comparison, 1979 was the highpoint for current use when the estimate was 25.4 million (14.1%).
  • White, non-Hispanic respondents reported a non-significant decrease in overall drug use from 6.4% to 6.1%, but African Americans and Hispanics reported non-significant increases from 7.5% to 8.2% and from 5.9% to 6.1%, respectively. The president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse in New York told USA Today (8/19) that both minority groups reported "whopping increases in cocaine and heroin use," but the survey only had racial/ethnic breakdowns for past-month cocaine use, not heroin. The data showed a statistically significant increase reported by Hispanics (from 0.8% to 1.3%), but a very slight decrease for African Americans (from 1.4% to 1.3%).
  • Between 1997 and 1998, there was no change in the percentages of youths age 12-17 reporting great risk from using cigarettes, marijuana, cocaine or alcohol.
The 1998 Household Survey is based on a sample of 25,500 people meant to represent the civilian, non-institutionalized US population 12 years old and older. The survey is available from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's website at http://www.samhsa.gov or by calling (800) 729-6686.

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Issue #104, 8/20/99 Household Survey Reports Decrease in Teen Use, While Overall Use Remains Flat | Superior Court of Guam Upholds Freedom of Religion for Rastafarian | San Francisco Plans Methadone Expansion | Members of California Congressional Delegation Urge Governor to Sign Needle Exchange Bill | ACLU Sues Oklahoma School District Over Student Drug Testing | United Kingdom: Liberal Democrat Leader Charles Kennedy Calls for Royal Commission on Drug Policy | NORML Foundation Launches Marijuana Ad Campaign in San Francisco | Lindesmith Center Seminar Series, Autumn 1999 | Errata: Methamphetamine Bill Alert, Kubby Plant Count | Editorial: Governor Bush's Cocaine Problem
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