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Drug and Tobacco Use Among US Teens Continues to Rise

The use of drugs and tobacco among high school students in the United States remains high, with more eighth and 10th graders smoking marijuana and cigarettes.

An annual government survey, conducted on behalf of the federal Department of Health and Human Services by University of Michigan researchers, also finds that more eighth graders are drinking alcohol.

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It is the 22nd year that the survey has been held. HHS Secretary Donna Shalala says the findings released Thursday shows that "everyone needs to give our young people the clear and unambiguous message that drugs are illegal, dangerous, and wrong."

In particular, she asserts that "marijuana today poses an increasingly serious drug-abuse problem and our children need to know that."

Some experts, however, express misgivings about the annual survey, saying that the data have been used by politicians and government officials to justify harsher legal penalties that have failed to account for cyclical increases and decreases in drug abuse.

Furthermore, these experts say, enforcing tougher narcotics laws has not stemmed the problem of drug abuse.

"The key to understanding drug use trends is knowing that they are not entirely responsive to government policies and speech-making," says Arnold Trebach, a professor at American University in Washington and the president of the Drug Policy Foundation, a research group.

"Trends fluctuate with increases followed by decreases and vice versa. More police and more prisons and more scare tactics are not going to change that fact," says Professor Trebach, who argues for a more total reevaluation of federal drug education programs.

The annual "Monitoring the Future" survey involves questioning eighth, 10th, and 12th graders about their uses of drugs, tobacco and alcohol. The latest survey involved 14,824 high school seniors, 15,873 10th graders and 18,368 8th graders. It includes the following findings:

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*Increases in lifetime, yearly, monthly, and daily use of marijuana by eighth graders and 10th graders. More than 23 percent of eighth graders said they tried marijuana at least once in their lives, compared to 19.9 percent in 1995; among 10th graders that figure rose from 34.1 percent in 1995 to 39.8 percent. Current use among eighth and 10th graders increased from 9.1 percent and 17.2 percent respectively in 1995 to 11.3 percent and 20.4 percent.

The number of high school seniors smoking marijuana remained essentially the same, although the number of those who reported using it least once rose from 41.7 percent to 44.9 percent.

*Cigarette smoking continues to rise among eighth and 10th graders, with use rising from 19.1 percent and 27.9 percent respectively to 21 percent and 30.4 percent.

Regular tobacco consumption among 12th graders showed no appreciable change from the 1995 survey.

*Alcohol consumption by eighth graders rose from 0.7 percent in 1995 to 1 percent in 1996, while the percentage reporting being drunk in the month before the survey increased from 8.3 percent in 1995 to 9.6 percent in 1996.

The number of 10th graders and seniors using alcohol remained essentially at 1995 levels, although at the substantial rates of 21.3 percent and 31.3 percent respectively.

"Increased use among students in eighth and 10th grades is a wake up call for American," says Gen. Barry McCaffrey, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

"Because marijuana use by youth is highly correlated with future use of addictive drugs like cocaine and heroin, we must step up efforts to prevent drug abuse among children of all ages," says General McCaffrey.

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