The number of teens abusing drugs is lower than it's been since the 1990s, according to a national survey. "The most important finding is the rate of drug use is at the lowest levels we've ever seen," says Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which funded the study.
But there are a couple of key exceptions. "[One] is marijuana. It hasn't gone up, like in older populations, but it hasn't gone down, and it remains worrisome," Volkow says. "Another concern is we see very high and very fast uptake of electronic vaping devices."
The survey, called Monitoring the Future, and conducted by the University of Michigan, has asked roughly 50,000 8th-, 10th- and 12th-grade students every year since 1991 about drugs and sex and attitudes on subjects ranging from race and ethnicity to career plans.
Last year, 1 out of every 3 high school seniors used a vape or e-cigarette, and 1 out of 6 high school seniors used a vape in the last month. Roughly 10 percent of high school seniors reported intentionally vaping nicotine, but many teens surveyed seemed unsure whether or not they were using a product with the drug. "Teens endorse that they don't really know what they are vaping. They may think they have just a strawberry flavor, and it may be mixed with nicotine," Volkow says.
That's particularly worrying to public health groups and officials. "The issue is nicotine is an addictive drug," Volkow says. "And if you are vaping it and not realizing it, you're still getting conditioned [to the drug]. That results in automatic wanting of the drug." Teens might be developing dependencies to nicotine without realizing they are at risk, and there is some evidence that young people who begin vaping nicotine are more likely to transition to tobacco cigarettes than teens who don't, Volkow says.
Teenagers are also using e-cigarettes for marijuana or hash oil, according to the survey, with roughly 11 percent of high school seniors saying they've done that. Hash oils can reach 95 percent pure THC, the psychoactive component in marijuana. Vaping such high concentrations of the drug can put people, particularly those who are not used to smoking weed, at a higher risk for undesirable side effects like temporary psychosis, Volkow says.
The rise in vaping drugs aside, public health advocates say this latest survey is a cause for optimism. "It is good to see consumption of most substances going down. It's consistent with what we know about, as we're calling them, Gen Z," says Robin Koval, the CEO and president of the anti-tobacco public health organization Truth Initiative. They were not involved with the study. "They are less risky, generally. It's reflective of a generation that is taking life more seriously a bit earlier on, which we are glad to see."
While the rest of the country struggles with high rates of opioid addiction and misuse, heroin and prescription painkiller use is at a historic low for teenagers. Five years ago, 1 out of every 10 high school seniors had tried synthetic marijuana. The survey results this year show that's down to 1 out of every 27 seniors. Combustible tobacco use has also hit an all-time low with only 9.7 percent of high school seniors smoking. "That's a milestone," Koval says.
Some of that reduction in drug use is probably the success of decades of public health campaigning and messaging, Volkow says. "The campaign against tobacco smoking has been one of the most successful campaigns. The same thing, but not as successful, are campaigns that go against binge drinking in teenagers," she says.
What are teens doing if not drugs? That's also hard to know, but there are some interesting ideas, Volkow says. One is that teens are hanging out online more and in person less. That gives them fewer opportunities to pass drugs to one another. Another might be that there are a lot of distractions at hand for teens. "Our brain is hardwired to seek out behaviors that are rewarding and reinforcing," Volkow says. Sports and video games can provide those kinds of rewards and act as "alternative reinforcers" she says.
And though the trends look like a victory for public health today, Volkow says, things can change so fast when it comes to drugs, especially with innovations coming from the black market.
Angus Chen is a journalist based in New York City. He is on Twitter: @angRChen.